Wednesday, April 17, 2013

7. Wearing the Scarlet Letter

7. You shall not commit adultery.  (The seventh is a series on the Ten Commandments.)

I remember reading the story "The Scarlet Letter" when I was in college.  It is a book written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850.  I believe it was made into a movie also.  It is set in puritanical times in New England and involves a woman named Hester Prynne who was accused of adultery by the church leaders and required to wear a scarlet Letter A on her clothing as punishment so that everyone could see her and know that she had sinned.  The church leaders try to get her to disclose who the father of her child is but she refused.  The story progresses with many turns and twists until finally she reveals that the child's father is the minister of the church, Arthur Dimmesdale.  The story has a tragic ending in which both Dimmesdale and Hester's husband, who had been believed to be lost at sea but who had returned and taken a false identity so  he could plot revenge upon the person who was the father of Hester's child, died and left her enough money that she could start over in life in Europe.  Whew!  What a story!

In Puritanical times, sexual misconduct was considered to be the worst sin of all.  Wearing a scarlet letter for the sin of adultery was thought to be a fitting and appropriate punishment.  After all, it is one of the ten commandments specifically spelled out in Exodus.  Adultery was the sin that was whispered about all through  the ages up to modern times.  What most people do not know about this commandment, however, is that adultery was not an equal opportunity sin when it was banished by this commandment.  Only women were considered to commit adultery in the ancient world.  Men did not commit adultery unless they sinned with a married woman.  Men could have many kinds of relations with unmarried women and it was not considered to be wrong.  Women, on the other hand, were considered to be sinners if they had any relation with any man outside of their marriage.  So, the scale of justice did not tip evenly on this issue.

When Jesus addressed morality in the Gospels, he was more concerned about divorce than he was about adultery, although he merged the two issues in the text from Mark that talks about it.   The Pharisees had asked him if it was okay for a man to divorce his wife (which again was one-sided since women could not divorce men).  "But Jesus said to them, 'Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you...Whoever divorces his wife and married another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband (which could not happen) and marries another, she commits adultery."  (Mark 10:5, 11-12)  Divorce was considered to be wrong because it broke the unity that had been established by a couple when they married.

The 7th commandment is very blunt.  Do not do it.  It is in a list of other "Do Not Do's"  Modern society today overlooks authority figures telling them what to do and this commandment seems to go by the wayside along with our tolerance of divorce, which rarely does anyone complain about or object to.  Adultery was defined specifically as a married woman who acted outside her marriage OR a man who acted outside of his marriage with a married woman.  The Mosaic law was written to try to bring harmony and unity in a world of chaos and having unity in the family unit as the basic unit of society was important.

So, should the Scarlet Letter be applied to all who stray outside of their marriages?  Should judgment and condemnation be the rule for persons who may venture off where they should not?  I really think that the law of love that Jesus taught urges compassion for all involved and healing and wholeness, restoration and forgiveness to happen rather than harshness.  There are many reasons why people stray off the path of life that they should travel but getting them back on track seems to be the more important role of church and society rather than imposing punishment upon wrongdoers.

" I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  (John 13: 34-35)

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