But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. (Psalms 3:3)
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of my favourite illustrations of grace, mercy and judgment and how it all works together in our favour when the world turns against us in all its cruelty and prejudice. It is a remarkable story of probably the most dramatic street encounter in the history of mankind. There near the steps of the Temple matters of life and death are determined in the dust of Old Jerusalem.
The issue described in the first twelve verses of John 8, is a dilemma either way. The leaders thought they could trip Jesus up on this one. There was no way out. Adultery was a serious crime, punishable by death. There were differences in the way the death penalty had to be carried out.
In Leviticus 20:10 both the man and the woman should be put to death. No method is specified. Deuteronomy 22:13-24 lays down the penalty for a girl who is already betrothed. She and the man, who seduced her, should be stoned outside the city gates. The Mishna (commentary on the Talmud) prescribed strangulation, something the Old Testament never ever even mentioned. From a legal point of view, the woman caught in the act, should be stoned. The absence of the man in this instance is glaring and a sign of the times – the woman took all the blame.
The dilemma for Jesus was this:
If He said she should be stoned and upholds the law of Moses, His message of love and mercy would suffer greatly and He could never again be called the friend of sinners. He would also be in collision with the Roman law that prohibited any execution by the Jews. If He said she should be pardoned, He would be breaking the law of Moses and therefore condoning people committing adultery. It was a theological, moral and political trap.
He stooped to write with His finger in the ground. The various commentaries name as many reasons as they can think up. Here are a few:
He may have given the people and the accusers the chance to repeat the charges and hear the cruelty of their words.
It could have been that the desperate fear of the woman, the cruel lust in the faces of the accusers, the unsympathetic stares of the crowd all combined, filled Jesus with shame for these people who were supposed to be the children of God and He hid His eyes from them.
There is another interesting suggestion. One commentary writes that Jesus wrote the sins of the accusers with the finger from heaven on the stones they were holding or in the sand as each one peered over His shoulder. The Greek word for write that is used here is not graphein, that means write, rather katagraphein, which means record against someone.
Nevertheless, they insisted on an answer and He gave it: Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
The words without sin, was so emphasized that it also meant without sinful desire.
Jesus was left alone with the woman and asked here where her accusers were. Remember men did not speak to women in public.
Her first and only words in the trial of her life, was her answer to this question.
Jesus sends here away with His words of a fresh start. He did not send her into the local church to brush up on the law of Moses, or into community. How could He just send her into the world of chaos and sin without the modern tools that we would like to set up around people to help them with their sinful nature and desires?
Jesus knew that He would be dying on the cross for her sin, very soon.
He also knew and fully trusted His father to keep her safe and teach her His ways by the Holy Spirit. We should also trust the Holy Spirit fully. As soon as the church wants to build walls around people to “help” them please God, corruption and legalism set in.
The Pharisees and scribes were convinced that they were in a position to judge as the legal experts at the time. Their authority brought them to the place of condemnation, criticism and censorship and they were quite comfortable in that role. Sympathy and love to reclaim the sinner were long lost. They did not feel any obligation to “cure” sin, only to descend in judgment and punish. They never thought that they too might be in a position to be judged.
Think of the difficulty the world has to redeem sinners. Rehabilitation of criminals in prisons is a burning issue, with little success. If anything, punishment brings bitterness and often descent into worse crimes.
The woman, as a human being and a child of God, had no place in the application and teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. They used her as an instrument to get to Jesus, their own purpose.
She is a nothing without a name.
People are never just a thing to be used. God uses our names. There are pages and pages of names in the Bible. The Bible has people first and foremost in focus.
God said to Moses: I know you by name (Exodus 33:17). He says to Cyrus: I the God of Israel, call you by name (Isaiah 45:3).
When people are things – Christianity is dead.
Do you think the Pharisees in this instance knew her name? How did this woman feel? One is told so little about her. Has she heard of Jesus? Did she see Him as part of church leadership and was dragged into His presence with fear and desperation?
Only the perfect man can pass judgment onto others. The Pharisees lived so meticulously that they considered themselves perfect to judge. Jesus warns that we should not judge (Matthew 7:1). When we judge we see the speck of dust in somebody else’s eye and not the plank in our own. (7:3-5). We might condemn somebody’s faults while missing the glaring faults in our own lives. No man can judge another.
Our first emotion towards a mistake should be pity. We bring relief, consolation and healing. Revulsion disappears in the desire to help.
Jesus did not condone her sin. He postponed judgment for after the opportunity of redemption. He gave her a second chance to give her hope of a new life. He wished to forgive and therefore felt pity towards her, born of love.
He gave her a challenge. He said that she should go out and do not wrong anymore. It was probably not easy, but her life was saved and given to her to make new decisions.
He believed she could do it, because He knew His father and how much His father loved her. The Father’s love will keep us from the snares of sin and the world.