The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) is a familiar story.
Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.
The scribes and Pharisees have selectively applied the law of Moses. They have not brought the required witnesses. The man who was with the woman when she was “caught in the act” is not present. Yet the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus’ opinion. As the text notes, this was a “test”. What should he say? What will he say?
Jesus responds by writing on the ground. I and many others have wondered, what was Jesus writing? I’ve read all sorts of suggestions, all of them speculative. The text simply does not tell us. The author of John must not have thought it important either. It turns out what is important is the act of writing itself. In the ancient world Jesus’ act of writing would have been recognized as refusal to answer the question, a refusal to participate in that discussion. The scribes and Pharisees are being ignored. Jesus action is intentional and obvious to all present. When they persist in their questions and Jesus does speak, he doesn’t answer their question does he? Then he disengages from the conversation again.
Usually we think of this story as one that helps us think about the relationship between sin and judgment.We are all sinners and that knowledge ought to temper our judgment of others. Usually when we quote part of this story, we way something like”Let the one without sin cast the first stone”. And we are usually saying this to correct another. We are reminding someone not to be hasty in their judgment. That’s not wrong, but I also think there is a little more going on here.
When Jesus tells them that the one without sin can be first to throw a stone, how do the scribes and Pharisees decide if they are without sin or not? I suspect they probably thought about Torah and their faithfulness to it. Did they “remember” that they forgot to bring the man involved in the adultery along too? Did they “remember” the lack of witnesses? Did they realize they had twisted Torah to serve their own ends?
Part of what happened here, is that the scribes and Pharisees had to think about the proper use of the Law. Why do we have the Law? Am I living faithfully within it? Torah is the way Israel has to declare its allegiance to the one true God. Torah is the way Israel keeps its focus on God.
Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees and us something about proper judgment. Our task is not to judge others. Our task is to judge ourselves. Our task is to keep our eyes on God. To manage the plank in our own eye. It is about standing before God and crying out for mercy because we a sinners.
Usually when I read this story of the woman caught in adultery, I’m glad I’m not like those scribes and pharisees. Of course as soon as I’ve thought that, I have to choose which one I am today, a scribe or a pharisee.
The reality is, I don’t have the time or energy to accuse you of sin, because it’s all I can do to keep myself faithful. I usually say this in a joking sort of way but honestly this is one of the truest statements I ever say.
It is also true that we do this, keeping ourselves faithful, together. We need each other. Not to condemn, but to support. To speak in loving truth to each other and to listen in loving truth.
I’d like to know, what do you think?