By Gilles Mongeau, SJ
When I first saw this painting in the artist’s studio, I was immediately taken with it. The vibrant colours of the accusers’ clothes stands out against the dull, almost desert-like quality of the environment. The woman stands alone, naked and humiliated, vulnerable to the rage of the crowd. The colouring of her skin is so dark that she absorbs the light that falls on the painting’s surface; in terms of light values, she is more of an absence than a presence.
All of us are accusers, always more ready to shame and scapegoat the Other than to rescue them.
Jesus sits on the ground, writing. What is he writing? As we take a closer look, we read: “1+13+18+3 = [(13-9)+(5-2)]x(9-3)-(12-5).” Solving the equation, we discover that it yields 35=35, matching the title of the painting: “The Adulterous Woman and her 35 Accusers.”
But if we count up the number of accusers in the image, there are only 34. In his presentation, artist Zantray points out that the 35th accuser is every person who views the painting. All of us are accusers, always more ready to shame and scapegoat the Other than to rescue them.
The nakedness of the woman reinforces this distressing truth. She has been grabbed and brought out into the public square, not even given a chance to put on a robe. By contrast, the “Adulterous Man” of the companion piece to this painting is calmly putting on his clothing. He has been left unmolested in the room where the two adulterers were discovered in the act. The accusers’ willingness to blame the woman is fully revealed, to our discomfort.
How often have I been willing to go with the crowd and discharge my weight of guilt and complicity with injustice on the outsider or the marginal person, to make her or him a scapegoat to be driven out into the wilderness to die? All the better if this Other can be accused, like the woman in the painting, of some crime that I can amplify in my own imagination to justify unloading my own sense of shame upon her.
On the ground, Jesus writes a second line: “♡>◻︎”. Love is greater than our propensity to put people in boxes, to leave them trapped and loaded down with our judgments and accusations.
Zantray goes on, in his presentation, to point out that in contrast to this propensity to accuse and blame the Other, St. Ignatius proposes in the Spiritual Exercises that “every good Christian ought to be more ready to put a good interpretation on the actions or words of another than to condemn them.”
On the ground, Jesus writes a second line: “♡>◻︎”. Love is greater than our propensity to put people in boxes, to leave them trapped and loaded down with our judgments and accusations. Cultivating a greater readiness to “save the proposition” of the Other leads us to choose to imitate Jesus and release our neighbour from the situations of sin, death, and injustice in which they are trapped.
“Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks the woman. “No one sir,” the woman replies, great surprise in her voice. “Then neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” More than a discharge of personal guilt, Jesus’ forgiveness frees us from the power of accusation and scapegoating that traps us and our society in cycles of perpetual violence and division.