I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.
The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).
Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”
Four details I want to highlight in this story:
- There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
- Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
- One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
- Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.