What we can learn about FAMILY THERAPY and day-to-day living from Jesus and the woman caught in adultery?
When Jesus, the teachers of the law, the Pharisees and the “woman caught in adultery” – are forced together for the well-known encounter recorded in John 8, the interaction illustrates some fundamental concepts of Family Therapy.
More than this, the forced altercation shows a healthy leader’s response – a non-anxious presence – to an evil, toxic, and yet common set-up.
Traps for leaders abound. Theological minefields are everywhere. The flawed expressions of human “righteousness” are with us. Jesus faced these dilemmas thousands of years ago as will the local pastor, who, in 2010 is trying to build a church.
The EMOTIONAL PROCESS remains the same. Anywhere good leadership is occurring, the woman’s experience in John 8 will be replayed in its own way, and the leader will face similar stresses as faced by Jesus.
Like many events recorded in the Bible, critical building blocks of Family Therapy are illustrated. Particularly, this scenario shows (1) Triangles, (2) Fusion or Enmeshment, and most profoundly offers a “window” into the concept Murray Bowen, one founder of Family Therapy, named (3) Self- Differentiation.
“But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.” 5”In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
This is the consummate triangle.
Trapped on all sides
The ferocious and determined Pharisees are fired up, fused with each other, and on the warpath, propelled by their sureness, the certainty of their righteousness. Their object lesson is a woman (keep your distance!), and she is wrong (unclean, unclean!) caught in a sin punishable by death. Jesus is pushed, accosted might be a better word, for an opinion by a herding pack of righteous men coming his way. You might want to take a moment to consider how violent and noisy and horrible it must have been to get this woman into the presence of Jesus. I am quite sure she did not willingly accompany the men.
In response to their invasiveness, Jesus demonstrates clear, well-defined boundaries, acute self-awareness and a tenacious understanding of humanity, the very hallmarks of self-differentiation, and the essentials of a healthy personality. (The Pharisees demonstrate the polar opposite.)
Jesus is taken by surprise with the arrival of the group of men who bring with them the adulterous woman. He has just sat down to teach. He is not expecting to be thrust into a theological or moral trap. The Pharisees are theological and social bullies. They barge in on Jesus and expect a hearing.
The men must have scouted the territory and gone out of their way to find her. They must have bullied and humiliated her into Jesus presence. To the Pharisees she is little more than a trump card, a means of exposing Jesus as theologically flawed. The camaraderie, their “blood-sport-togetherness” or “locker-room-bravado” is further fired by their “rightness” which blinds them to any possible surprises from Jesus and of course, blinds them to love.
The Pharisees focus on the woman’s sin, not because they want to bring her to correction. They have no care for her whatsoever. They use her to “win” something over on Jesus. The have no interest in her salvation or in her wellbeing. Their interest in her begins and ends with their attempts at trapping Jesus. Methinks the Pharisees sound much like the man who got her into this predicament in the first place! What is the difference between using a woman for sex or using a woman as bait? Both show no interest in her welfare and neither party respects her as a person.
This behavior demonstrates their poor boundaries, their fusion, and lack of differentiation. The sin of the woman is
The accusers are fused -- cannot think or act alone
the focus of the Pharisees, not because they ache for her redemption, not because they want to fight for righteousness, not because adultery alienates spouses from each other and ruins, wounds, and challenges the social order.
People with sound boundaries, self-defined people, do not need the weaknesses or wrongness of others to underscore their goodness. Rather, they are sensitive to the vulnerable, compassionate with the weak, and can love and care without losing themselves to the object of their love, and without drowning in empathy or sorrow.
They went looking for her in order to trap her in her immorality. Now, with similar energy, they come looking for Jesus to lay for him a theological trap. Boundary violators have no way to self-govern and they are on a roll to show they are good and that she and Jesus are bad. There is no stopping the tirade at this point by anyone with equally poor boundaries. Confused people cannot “un-confuse” confused people. It takes solid, healthy boundaries to stop the invasive power of righteous confusion. Persons attempting such an intervention, from an equally unhealthy state, will merely escalate the conflict into greater polarity, avoidance, or estrangement.
The Pharisees lack self-definition and insight (if they had either this situation would not have arisen). Remember, they travel and attack in packs, hurt the weak and try to fuse with the strong. They need her (they cannot vouch for themselves) to validate who they are, to swing their claims. Ill-defined people cannot vouch for themselves or be their own object lesson because within each there is no healthy “I”. They have to triangle (recruit) someone or something in order to prove their position or display their worth. One-on-one confrontations are not attractive for ill-defined people, they simply do not have the self (the “I”) for it, thus their tendency to triangle others in order meet their goals.
7But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
Notice that like all well-defined people, Jesus gets to decide how he behaves. He knows he makes the rules for his own behavior. The seriousness of the hour, the gravity of her sin, the rightness of the Pharisees and the pressure of all who are watching to see what he will do and how he will respond, are not adequately motivating forces for him to decide something in the heat of the moment. The pressure of the moment, or even any sense of compassion or feelings of pity for the woman, do not drive him or dictate his behavior. He is sufficiently self-defined, grounded, integrated, to know what he believes, and to demonstrate what he believes before he falls prey to their evil trap.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” Jesus agrees with the Pharisees regarding her condition. He does not defend her. He is sufficiently self-assured and self-aware, and insightful, not to take sides even at a time it might appear necessary. He suggests that the very people who have found her guilty dish out the lawful punishment. He asks those doing the punishing simply be morally positioned to do so.
Notice that in his magnificent expression of differentiation he gets them each to “think alone” and not as a group. By suggesting that they respond to her sin according to their degree of individual perfection, each has to begin some degree of reflection or self-contemplation. They arrive together (“unified” – in fact they are pack-like) but he talks to them as individuals. They depart as individuals (they become unglued). He strips them of the glue and the group falls apart. His capacity to differentiate (His integrity) un-fuses the fusion.
If he had been anxious and pressured and said, “Do whatever you all think is the right thing to do,” he’d have played into their zealous pack mentality and they might have immediately stoned her. After all, they are right. She is wrong. But being only right does not always resonate with compassion, empathy, acceptance and challenge. Being right, being kind, and being moral are not always the same thing. Some people are so “right” that the zeal, the power, the attitude behind their rightness makes them dead wrong.
8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11″No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Many writers have conjectured about why Jesus stooped down and about what he wrote. I believe such details are irrelevant. The point is that Jesus took the time to “steel” himself for the moment. He takes the time to be present for himself, to allow himself room to think. He gives Himself room to shift gears, to get perspective not distorted by their invasive zeal.
These are the marks of a non-anxious presence. He is not delaying or avoiding, nor is he confused. He is not “conflict-avoidant” or “conflict-averse.” Remember there’s a cross in his future!
The situation does not unsettle Him......
He is enduring and embracing the emotionally charged moment, and, with his own “non-anxious-presence” he is discharging the charge, he is deflating the emotional balloon, bringing it all “down to size” without becoming infected by the surrounding anxieties. Jesus is allowing everyone an opportunity to face each other as humans rather than endorsing the necessary polarity as law-breaker and law-keepers. Notice how easy it is to judge when the criminal is faceless, nameless and how putting a person in the dock can change the attitude of the jury. Jesus sees her face. Their intent was to embarrass her and to trap him but Jesus gives her a face and an identity. He demands they look at her as a woman, a person, for the first time.
He does what all great leaders do when faced with manipulators, with toxic triangles and evil people parading as righteous: he brings a calm by being calm, he acts as a thermostat to the volcanic emotions surrounding him, but, does not himself become “emotional” or reactive. He does not lash out at them in the manner that they have lashed out at the woman or at Him. He does not return evil for evil or try to combat intensity with equal display of intensity, He doesn’t not try to use reason with unreasonable people. Jesus talks to a woman. He talks with an unclean woman! This would be considered scandalous for a man, a religious man, and even more scandalous for a Rabbi. Jesus knows who he is and therefore is able to engage the woman with the full understanding of what the conversation “looks like” to others. If he were a person with blurred boundaries or one who was lacking in self-awareness, he’d have removed himself from her and either hidden himself among the Pharisees or gotten himself away from the Pharisees and the woman all together. When people are “triangled” (trapped, cornered) they have few options other than to be a victim – or run, attack or rescue. Jesus does none of these and he stays.
He remains non-anxious and present (a non-anxious presence) in the light of the confronting, attacking behavior of the Pharisees. He remains present for the woman in her humiliation. If he were a poorly defined man, an anxious man, he might have wanted to impress the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, or impress the onlookers with his “love” and compassion by running to the rescue of the woman. His behavior comes from within; it is internally processed, not externally dictated.
A less defined Jesus might have said, “You are most certainly correct,” in response to the Pharisees, if he’d wanted to side with them. “Not only do you accurately assess that I am one who knows the law, you know the law well enough to assess that she is breaking it.”
In this manner his response would have blurred the lines between who he was, and who they were. He would have removed any differences between them, fused with them. He’d have given up his beliefs and his behavior for theirs. This would have gotten the Pharisees “off his case” and they would certainly have made him their poster rabbi.
It is important to note that Jesus and the Pharisees agree the woman is a sinner but are polarized in the way they see her. They see Law. He sees a person. The Pharisees dehumanize and use her while Jesus responds to a troubled woman.
If he had been unsure of himself, seeking his identity in the acceptance of others, then siding with the Pharisees would not only have been right (according to the law) it would have given him “love” and “acceptance” enough to compensate for whatever he felt he was lacking at the time. When people need to use of the “badness” of others to show their goodness, something is usually awry.
On the other hand, if Jesus had expressed a lack of differentiation by siding with the woman, the interaction might have gone something like this:
“Yes. She is in the wrong, but where is your compassion?” he says, standing between the woman and the Pharisees, inviting her to hide behind him.
“Where is the man with whom she has sinned?” (He might have attempted to further triangle the woman by bringing in her fellow adulterer).
“She is more sinned against than sinning,” he might have said, “Get lost you evil men who want to trap a woman in her sin.”
If this had been his approach he would not only have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the law, he would have incurred their further wrath. Such a move might have managed to get a lot of sinners on his side and he might even have felt quite messianic in doing so, but still he would have been reacting (giving away his power) to the emotional environment, as opposed to responding and keeping the power.
By taking sides with no one in this unfortunate scenario, by remaining within, yet apart from it, and by not rescuing the woman, she gets to face herself and not hide behind Jesus. Because he does not attack the Pharisees they, unexpectedly, get to examine themselves. He masterfully steps out of the fray, clears the ground between them and “forces” them into self-examination, and, into seeing the woman in ways they had heretofore not had the eyes to see.
His response is good for everyone. It encourages her self-respect and it takes the Pharisees sufficiently by surprise. They have no option but to consider their own moral condition. His response shifts the focus off the woman and onto their own behavior and they take the only option they can, which is to leave the messy scene of their own creation with their self-righteous tails tucked between their legs.
To hide behind Jesus (in our sin) does none of us any good (this is an attempt to “fuse” with Jesus). As each of us must do, she faces herself. She faces Jesus and she faces her accusers. The Pharisees are compelled to see her, not as a thing, as a sinner, as a means to their malevolent ends, but as a woman and an equal. They have to see her for themselves, rather than as men who somehow managed to get God on their side against her. Perhaps you have noticed that when people think they have God on their side it is easy to avoid seeing people as real people?
Jesus lets no one off the hook, including himself. He could legitimately judge her and his judgments would be accurate. He could condemn her. He’d be correct if he did. Instead of these options he speaks the truth without allowing anyone else, or any emotional pressure, to define the truth for him. He is able to offer her grace because it is an expression of who and what he is, and not because the teachers of the law or the Pharisees are pressuring him to do so.
Jesus is, in this exchange and in every encounter, himself. He demonstrates integrity to his very essence and, subsequently, everyone, the Pharisees and the woman, get to self-examine afresh. Potentially everyone is better situated for growth, for greater authenticity, deeper Godliness, and the same is likely to be true when anyone learns the wisdom of growing less Pharisaical (legalistic) and becoming more self-differentiated.
Everyone in this noisy and aggressive encounter has the potential to be freer than they were prior to it, which remains, to this day, a hallmark of encountering Jesus. To the woman, Jesus says, “Go and sin no more,” or “Go and TAKE UP YOUR LIFE.” To the Pharisees and teachers of the law he effectively says, “Go and stone no more.”