He came to the Temple early to teach, so I stayed in the courtyard to hear him before I had to move on. I wanted to listen to him all day, but my master would not be pleased if I was not there to clean his shop before his customers arrived. I had only moments before I would need to move on.
He didn’t get to teach long. A crowd – Pharisees and scribes and a loud collection of men – surged at him. One of the religious leaders motioned for the men to part. In that crowd of men was a solitary woman. Two of the larger men held her in their grips, thrust her forward, and then melted back into the mob.
I knew that woman.
We’d grown up in the same village, a poor and insignificant gathering of huts and shacks, and both came to Jerusalem desparate to seek work. Sarah left our village a year before me. I had only recently arrived in Jerusalem and felt blessed to find a man who needed a laborer for lifting and moving his heavy wares, to clean, and to stand watch over the shop whenever he left. It was not the type of work I’d hoped for, but it was work I could do and it put food in my stomach.
My master was not harsh, but he was also not kind. I was reminded of that when I saw him in that crowd of men. He caught my eye and I knew I would hear of this, of my tarrying in the Temple courts.
What was Sarah doing with all those men?
One of the religious leaders motioned for quiet and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Adultery? Sarah? She must have married after leaving our little village, and to someone as desperate as she if they’d married so quickly. But was she still so desperate as to now take up with another man? We all waited for the teacher to speak, but he remained silent.
The teacher’s failure to respond alarmed me. Did he have no answer? And did he have no question for them either? I did. I wanted to know where the man she’d committed adultery with was. The man and woman both were supposed to be brought in for judgment according to the Law of Moses, the law these teachers said they were so concerned about.
The teacher stooped down and there, before everyone, started drawing his finger through the dust on the stone floor of the courtyard. He was writing something but I couldn’t make it out from my vantage looking at the letters upside down. The Pharisees and Scribes kept hammering him with questions, the men at their backs shouting encouragement, yet he remained stooped down, tracing with his finger.
He gave no answer. He gave no indication he was concerned with them at all. Finally their questions ceased, the mob-driven strength with which they’d entered the courtyard spent.
Sarah stood there, alone, separated from the mob by the barest of distances, head down, shoulders bowed under the weight of their accusing hatred. Then the teacher stood, closer to her than to the religious leaders. Sarah looked up at him as he spoke to the mob.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The crowd silenced. Sarah turned from them, her back bowed as if waiting for that first stone to strike. And the teacher? He stooped down and resumed writing in the dust.
If anyone was struck you’d have thought it was the Pharisee who had spoken first. His gray beard swept across his shoulder as he looked at the hushed men behind him. Gathering his robes, he turned his body and strode out the gate to the streets of the city.
All of the elders soon followed, some by one gate and some by another. Then the younger ones – the hotheads, I’d say, who were looking for excitement even if it meant blood – saw there was nothing left to do or say. They too turned and left.
Then the teacher stood again, this time looking directly at Sarah. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” he declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The teacher did not condemn Sarah even though the law said she deserved death!
He was letting her go, and telling her to not get herself into this trouble again. My head swam at the thought of such grace, and my heart melted for Sarah. Then a voice broke through my thoughts.
“Come. We must return to the store.” My master stood at my side. “I must tend to my own business.” He looked back at the teacher and Sarah. “And I must consider these words of forgiveness.”
We walked across the courtyard toward the street.
“Do you think it is possible to leave a life of sin?” I asked him.
“I do not know. That teacher seems to think so.”
“Sarah … that is, the woman … uh, she’s from my village … she’s sitting at the teacher’s feet, listening with the others circled around him.”
My master stopped at the gate and looked back. “Yes, so she is. How odd that he allows women to sit and listen as he teaches the men.”
“I’ve learned that he teaches all who will listen, any woman or man who has ‘ears to hear’ as he puts it.”
“Do you think he would teach me?” my master asked.
“You have ears.” I took his hand. “Let us both go and listen.”
And I led him to the circle, where we both sat by Sarah and listened to the true Master.