A. Lobo Gajiwala – Claiming the Right of Mercy in the Family

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by Astrid Lobo Gajiwala

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The Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera (MM) promulgated by Pope Francis at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy takes its title from the dramatic episode of the women caught in adultery who is brought to Jesus to be sentenced to death  (Jn 8:1-11). The teachers of the law and the Pharisees are confident that they have cornered him, but Jesus outmanoeuvres them using God’s Law of love. As “mercy and misery” meet, new paths are opened for life and justice, both for the woman, and the men who would ruthlessly stone her. Jesus frees the woman from her prison of fear, guilt and condemnation and “clothed in mercy …it is (now) possible for her to look ahead and to live her life differently” (MM 1). To her accusers however, he shows no mercy. Instead, he challenges them to walk away from their sanctimonious judgment, despite it being righteous in the patriarchal eyes of the Law. He seasons their “justice” with God’s mercy and invites them to share in God’s power by doing the same.[1]

1. Uncovering Patriarchy 

While this episode provides valuable lessons in mercy and its capacity to transform individuals and situations, it also opens a window into the lives of women the world over, who are at the mercy of patriarchal laws and customs. Thus, in ancient Israel, adultery was defined as a sexual relationship between a married woman and a man who was not her husband. While it was considered a capital offence that attracted the death penalty for both the accused (Leviticus 20:10), the crime was not about injuring the marriage bond, or transgressing the rights of the aggrieved spouse, or even breaking a contract, as understood today.[2] The primary focus was the rights of a man over his wife. Thus, the death penalty did not apply to sex with a virgin[3]. In practice however, prostitution was widespread and adultery frequent, so the laws were “often ignored or not enforced,” particularly regarding male offenders.[4] That perhaps is why there is no mention of the adulterous man in this account, and why Jesus’ act of mercy takes on deeper significance. 

In its eagerness to commend the example of Jesus, Misericordia et misera fails to critique the patriarchal worldview which requires the execution of a woman for adultery, while apparently condoning her partner.[5] In this understanding, the jealous rage of the offended husband was justified (Proverbs 6:32-35) because he had exclusive rights over his wife. At the time of his betrothal he had paid her father a bride price to compensate for the loss of labour when she moved house, and she was now counted among his assets.[6] The Ten Commandments explicitly mention her among his “goods” (Ex 20:17).  Although women did receive some economic protection after divorce[7] and were free to remarry, divorce was the right of the husband,[8] with the divorced woman being termed “the dismissed one”.[9] Women could not divorce cheating husbands. Mercy was therefore the birthright of the man, not the woman. Even if she was raped, depending on whether she was a virgin or married, it was her father or husband who had to be appeased. The men were construed as victims, not the woman.

[1] William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene I) describes the quality of mercy graphically. An attribute of God itself, it is distributed like the rain, indiscriminately and with abandon, on the good and the bad alike. Enthroned in the human heart it makes gods of human beings, bringing blessings to the merciful as much as to those shown mercy.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, IV. Offenses Against the Dignity of Marriage.

[3] Leo G. Purdue, “The Israelite and Early Jewish Family,” in Leo G. Purdue, Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins, and Carol Meyers, Families in Ancient Israel (Louisville KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).184.

[4] Ibid., 184-5.

[5] Ancient Israel was not necessarily any more patriarchal than its neighbors—or than subsequent and present cultures around the world. For a critique of exaggerated Christian characterizations of Judaism as misogynist in contrast to a proto-feminist Jesus, see Amy-Jill Levine, “Second Temple Judaism, Jesus and Women,” in Athalya Brenner-Idan, Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament (Sheffield UK:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1996302-31. At the time of Jesus, Jewish women may even have begun to enjoy more status and freedom, as did women in the Roman world. See  Ross Shepard Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings. Women’s Religions among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World  (Oxford UK and New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994).

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] At least this was the case by the time of Second Temple Judaism.  See John J. Collins, “Marriage, Divorce and Family,” in Families in Ancient Israel, 109.

[8] Purdue notes that while it is likely that only the husband could initiate divorce, this is not absolutely clear (185).  Collins provides documentary evidence that in at least one community in Second Temple Judaism, women did have the right to initiate divorce (109-10).

[9] Ibid., 185-6.

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