It had been a demanding few days. Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles and had been teaching in the temple courts. His teaching had been forthright and uncompromising, exposing the hardness of the hearts of the self-righteous Jews.
The main issue was that of Sabbath breaking. Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were enraged. Jesus told them, “ The One who sent me is true. You do not know Him, but I know Him because I am from him and He sent me”. This made the Pharisees so angry they tried to arrest him, but he evaded them.
Now they came, striding into the court, prayer shawls and tassels billowing around them, a bunch of men intent on catching him out. They stood in front of him and parted to reveal a figure they had dragged along. She was cowering with shame, hiding her face, looking at the ground, sobbing quietly.
Triumphantly the leader declared, “This woman has been caught in bed with someone else’s husband! According to Moses, she should be stoned! What do you say, Jesus?”
The others with him nodded sagely. Aha! Now we’ve got him! He cant get out of this one! The Law is unequivocal: he must comply with it!
There was utter silence. Jesus bent down and doodled in the dust with his finger. He wasn’t in a hurry. He wasn’t panicked or flummoxed. He wasn’t embarrassed. He just waited.
What was he doing? What was he writing? I think he was listening, not to the confusion around him, but to the voice of his Father. “By myself I do nothing. I judge only as I hear, and my judgement is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (John5v30)
That was the way Jesus lived. He and the Father were in complete agreement.
The woman had sinned. She deserved the penalty. There were no extenuating circumstances. The Law had spoken, it was an open and shut case. She must die. Moses’ finger pointed at her uncompromisingly, while Jesus’ finger wrote in the dust
The accusers began badgering him to give them an answer. Slowly he straightened up. Their belligerent voices died away and again there was silence. He looked at the woman, hunched over, abject in her shame. He looked at her agitated accusers.
“Alright”, he said, “ If any of you is without sin, he can throw the first stone.” He crouched down again and resumed scribbling in the dust. They all looked at each other, shocked, and then dropped their eyes, embarrassed, confused. Who was blameless enough to be the executioner?
The oldest turned his grey head and walked away. One by one, they all trickled out from the court. A couple of the younger more hot-headed ones, stayed longer, frowning, thinking. Then shrugging their shoulders, they too left.
Jesus stood up again and looked at the courtyard, empty except for the woman , huddled in her veil, ashamed, scared. “Does no-one condemn you?” He asked.
“No-one Sir,” she replied in wonderment.
“Neither do I”, Jesus said. “Now go and leave your life of sin.”
Was Jesus condoning her adultery? Was he turning a blind eye? Did he consider that for some people he would make an exception?
“Its OK, I understand, your husband is old, he was away, your friend turned up, you just couldn’t help falling in love….these things happen.”
No. He called sin what it is. He didn’t dilute it. He saved her from its penalty and power. A few weeks later he himself would lay his life down to atone for her sin. The Law would be satisfied.
“For the Father did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” (Ch3v17)
I love this story: I love the drama. I love the tension as the Pharisees set their trap. I love Jesus’ refusal to be ruffled or drawn into an argument. I love it when he gives his unanswerable reply. I love his wisdom and I love seeing those proud men walk away baffled and frustrated.
In these days of tension, anger, and injustice, leading to riots and violence, how much we need Jesus’ calm authority and wisdom. He didn’t respond to anger with anger; he didn’t enter into debate; he didn’t accuse and condemn. He confronted his hearers with the truth about themselves; and in the light of that to not be judgmental and critical about the failings of others. But at the same time, not to pretend the sin didn’t happen.
Only Jesus can do that. But we can learn from him.