A Woman Caught in Adultery
8 Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2 but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
11 “No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
If you’ve spent any time in church, you probably know this story. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, it’s a good one. Like any Gospel story, there’s a lot going on within it, and there are multiple angles by which to approach it. Here’s what I see at this point in my own life.
Let’s back it up a little bit to start. Long before this event, God had provided Moses with the Law, which outlined God’s covenant with Israel, His people. It was a contract of sorts in which God said, “If you do this and don’t do that, I will do this and won’t do that.” Not a foreign concept to mankind, which is always seeking to define the boundaries of any relationship. The Law prohibited adultery, and this woman was caught red-handed in violation of that Law decades later.
No matter how much later it was, law is law, especially when it’s written by God Himself. I’m sure the Pharisees felt pretty proud of themselves as they dragged this poor women, who was probably already about to die of embarrassment, in front of a crowd- a crowd listening to Jesus.
It’s interesting to note that from the beginning their plan was to trap Jesus. It’s as if they had predicted that Jesus wouldn’t respond in the way the Law commanded. Their sense of religious pride must have mounted as they knew they would be able to publicly kill two birds with one stone.
When asked an obviously loaded question, Jesus responded in true Jesus fashion. I keep looking for instances in which Jesus actually answered questions directly, and I can’t seem to find any. He was the master of answering questions with questions, sharing stories to illustrate meaning, and nudging His followers on their own journeys toward truth.
Jesus knelt down and began drawing in the sand, but we don’t know what he wrote, or even if He wrote anything at all. If we want to take a deeply theological stab at it, we might suggest that Jesus was reenacting His Father’s act of writing the Law on stone tablets on Mount Sinai by bending down at the base of a mountain to rewrite the Law in the dust of the earth, from which man’s heart was created before the Mosaic and Levitical Laws existed. Who knows?
Sure of their righteousness, the Pharisees kept demanding an answer. Would Jesus, this teacher of the Law, actually enforce one of their favorites? Would He make an example out of this sinful, adulterous woman, and teach Israel that Yahweh would not tolerate this kind of behavior? Was God still God, because the Law was still Law?
What is often missed in this story is this: Jesus did enforce the Law the Pharisees expected. Levitical Law required the witness, the accuser and the one to throw the first stone at those caught in this type of sin to be sinless. When Jesus finally stood up, He said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”
One by one, the Pharisees left, hanging their heads in disappointment, the oldest ones leaving first because having lived longer lives they had had more time to sin. It’s hard to say what they must have felt at that point, but I can imagine they were pissed. Their public humiliation had backfired, and instead of killing two birds with one stone, they were taught a lesson by a teacher they had so desperately hoped would butcher the Law rather than enforce it. When confronted with the fullness of their own depravity, and therefore the fullness of God’s amazing grace, they wallowed, or stewed, in it, until that very grace had made them angry enough to plot Jesus’ murder in a power struggle that would show this teacher who had the right to interpret God’s Law.
People are always screwing up grace. The artsy Instagram posts I see say stuff like, “Grace is when you don’t get what you don’t deserve.” I get that, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I think that mentality kind of perpetuates the cycle. When we think we’re showing someone grace, we put ourselves in a position of superiority, as if we have the right to determine what others do and do not deserve, just so we can call ourselves gracious by doing the opposite. We hold the stones, and we think we deserve a pat of the back when we drop them. We manipulate the women on the ground into thinking we are the reason they’re not getting what they deserve. We mistake our role in this story, forgetting that we are all simultaneously the Pharisees, the adulterous woman, and the onlooking crowd; we are everyone in this story but Jesus. We overlook what Jesus was really saying, and doing, when He Himself knelt back down again and began writing in the dust again.
This story of amazing grace ends with a command: “Go and sin no more.” A command that the Pharisees missed when they “slipped away one by one” to avoid the Law they so dearly loved to enforce upon others almost as much as themselves.