John 8:1-11- The overt and covert sinners.
I am going to tackle these eleven verses with the weight that they deserve.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. The Gospel of John sees Jesus in Jerusalem on five different occasions. Two during a Passover (John 2.13, 12.12), one during an unnamed festival (John 5.1), then again in Chapter 7:14 when he arrives in the middle of the festival of booths and one at Hanukkah or the festival of dedication (John 10.22). The synoptics on the other hand record Jesus in Jerusalem only toward his final days of his ministry; though a careful reading of Luke 2:41 states that the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. This by extension once can surmise that Jesus joined his parents every year as he would have accompanied them to Jerusalem for the Passover. We know of one such incident when he was twelve years old and was ‘lost’ in the temple.
Our text today takes place a day after the festival of booths has ended with Jesus declaring “let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” The response of the crowd ranged from hailing him as the prophet to the Messiah (7:40,41) with even the temple police having returned without arresting Jesus because he spoke with authority. The Pharisees and the authorities were at the end of their tether and watching the crowds follow Jesus declared the masses who they considered religiously illiterate, as accursed (7:49). None were to be spared the wrath of religious authorities; not even Nicodemus who because he asserted the rule of law for a just defense (7:51) was scoffed at contemptuously as a Galilean (7:52).
Scripture now tells us that “each one of them went to their home while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, one of Jerusalem’s seven hills. This seems to be the place of quiet prayer for Jesus while he is in Jerusalem. (Luke 21:37, Luke 22: 39). One had to cross the Kidron valley to the Mount of Olives where there was a garden called Gethsemane at the foot of the mountain. He will return here just after the last supper to pray for the last time with his disciples. It is here that he will be betrayed by Judas.
This brings us to the heart of the text for today, John 8:2 tells us that Jesus arrives in the temple early the next morning and people came to him. The Gospel of Luke will tell us that the people too woke up early to come to listen to him teach and that’s what he did on this occasion too. “All the people came to him”; this was a large crowd and from the events that unfold we can surmise that Jesus was sitting in the court of the women which was between the court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Men.
Jesus is in the midst of a teaching when he is interrupted by the scribes and the Pharisees. They bring him a woman caught in adultery and make her stand before all of them (8:3). They go on to detail the crime while exhibiting the sinner. Interestingly the woman is caught in (the act of) adultery. This begs the question where is the man who ought also to be caught with her? But clearly you need to remember the antecedents of the previous day. While the Pharisees beat a retreat and went home the previous night, they were certainly not having a peaceful night. Verse six tells us that they have brought the woman to test him. It is not the law of Moses on their mind but an evil plot to destroy Jesus. They address Jesus as ‘teacher’; clearly not out of respect for who Jesus was but out of fear of public opinion of him.
It must cross the mind of the reader that perhaps this entire episode was a set-up, perfectly planned and staged. What were ‘righteous men’ doing early in the morning? Were they out hunting for adulteress people? How did they stumble upon this woman? Did her husband discover here infidelity and haul her before the moral police force of that time?
What is clear is that for the scribes and the Pharisees, naming and shaming’ was more important than mercy. For them the law was to be followed slavishly even though the law was not slavishly written. So, quoting the ‘law of Moses’ they state the punishment that the law demands for ‘such a woman’; namely to be stoned. Then they ask Jesus for his opinion, “what do you say?”
Imagine for a second that you were caught in any act that would bring you shame. Imagine being caught watching pornography or masturbating and dragged before the whole household. Imagine standing there shamed while your accusers throw the law book at you if not looks of great disapproval. There is a sin in question and that cannot be ignored. Jesus sees both, the sinner and the sin and weighs in both justice and mercy. This was not the case for the Pharisees and scribes who wanted ‘justice’.
Let us look first at the ‘law of Moses’, what did it say? Leviticus 20:10 says that if a man commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, BOTH are to be put to death. Interestingly, nowhere in Leviticus does it state they shall be put to death by stoning. The recommendation of stoning or strangulation came not from the law but from the Mishna (a commentary on the oral traditions) was an addition by the Pharisees’ their interpretation of the law of Moses. So, while the law called for the ‘death sentence’ it did not state the method. In any case we know that they were out to trap Jesus.
If Jesus said that the law must be followed then the very man who declared, ‘come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest’ would now be contradicting himself publicly. On the flip side, If Jesus disregarded the law of Moses then he would be contradicting himself again for it was he who declared that not one dot, not one iota of the law will be changed. Finally, if Jesus did endorse the law of Moses to put them to death, then he would be taking the civil law into his hands in permitting the stoning of this woman to death. Roman law had prohibited the religious prescriptions of death sentences and had reserved these matters only to their authority. If Jesus permitted the stoning of this woman, he would be defying Roman law thus giving a charge to be brought against him by the Pharisees.
The response of Jesus was unprecedented in Gospel narratives; he wrote on the ground! What he wrote is conjecture. Some scholars and Church fathers like Jerome suggest he wrote the very sins of these Pharisees, on the ground. Imagine the Lord writing your sins, now for the whole world to see! Imagine him writing a porn site you regularly visit. Imagine him writing the names of the people whom you have looked at lustfully. What he wrote we will not know but certainly the finger of God was writing something meant for the woman’s accusers to see. Here in lies a thought, they were so blinded by their own hate that they could not see what our Lord was writing. Perhaps they thought he was buying time from a difficult situation and so they pressed on (8:7).
Jesus we are told now ‘straightened up’ to straighten them up! He simply throws the ball back in their court. If you yourself are without sin, go ahead and throw a stone at her.
Let’s get a few things right. The matter at hand was the sin of adultery. Was Jesus confronting the woman’s accusers on any sin (considering all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God) or was he talking to the Pharisees and scribes about the particular sin of adultery? Was he actually saying, ‘let he who among you is not an adulterer cast a stone?’. Was Jesus now calling out their sin publicly, shaming them as they shamed her?
Deuteronomy 17:7 acknowledges that those who were witnesses against an accused have a special responsibility for that person’s death. Jesus is confronting her accusers. Did they even witness this sin? Was this just a set up? If they were bringing a serious charge carrying the death penalty and this charge was false, the law also stated that they could receive the same punishment that was given to the person falsely accused.
Now for the second time, Jesus bends over and wrote on the ground. This time they did not have to see what he wrote for his words were ringing in their ears. Scripture tells us, “When they heard this…” This time the heard what they perhaps chose not to see.
We are simply told that the Pharisees and scribes went away; where we do not know, but go they did, one by one…beginning with the elders. This time Jesus straightened up again (verse 10). He had one more person to straighten out; the woman. With her, his approach is so different. He has to deal with the sin and the sinner; compassion and justice must encounter each other. It cannot be one without the other. His mercy is now on display when he asks the woman where are her accusers, “has no one condemned you?” Interestingly the woman does not claim innocence, she knows her sin. She is standing now with the one person who can take away her sin and who has come to take away the sins of the world. Jesus does not sit on the throne of condemnation but on the mercy seat of compassion. “Neither do I condemn you” with these words, absolution is granted.
Take a moment to let those words sink in. It is to us that Our Lord speaks. He does not condemn but at the same time he makes a demand, “go your way and from now do not sin again.” We too, like the woman are free to go, but not to sin.
Fr Warner D’Souza