Today we read the famous story about a woman brought before Jesus caught in adultery. Its another trap for Him set by the Pharisees. If Jesus condemns her, they will go to the Romans because only the Romans have authority to carry out capital punishment. If Jesus refuses to condemn her the Pharisees will discredit him for failing to follow the law of Moses. Jesus handles this situation in what seems to us and enigmatic way but with a little detective work the probable answer comes to light.
The scene starts with the woman being brought before Jesus:
… but 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 taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.
The first thing that is very apparent and we notice is that the woman is brought before Jesus but not partner. Our modern senses immediately catch this sexism. Indeed it was for the passage says that the woman had been “caught in the act” and Jewish law required punishment of both the man and the woman. Since the passages identifies that she had been caught in the act it is clear that the Pharisees were violating the law in bringing only the woman for punishment.
We see what Jesus does next:
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones …
This is a key symbolic act of Jesus. In Jewish law to convict someone of this crime a priest would have to stoop down and write the law on the ground that the accused was being charged with breaking and then write the person’s name. In taking this first action, Jesus is identifying himself as a priest with authority to pass judgement. Notice, the Pharisees “continue to ask him” at this point they probably think that Jesus is playing right into his hands.
It’s also very important WHEN this act happens. It is during the feast of tabernacles a seven day Jewish celebratory feast that fell only a few days after Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). During this time the Jewish people would perform the water libation ceremony. The high priest would go down to the Siloam pool (where Jesus once healed a cripple who could not make it into the water) and fill a golden picture. Then he would take it back up the Temple and pour it out. The High Priest would then recite the following verse from Jerimiah:
O Lord, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.
So this was the time of year when the verse that formed the basis for the “procedure” of accusing someone was recited in the Temple.
Notice what happens after the first writing. Jesus stands up. At this point the Pharisees probably think that Jesus will pronounce judgement. Instead, he utters the famous line, “Let him among you who is without sin throw the first stone”. Then He kneels back down and starts writing again. What is he writing this time? He is probably the name of each person in the crowd and the law which they can be accused of violating. He has turned the Pharisees attempt at harsh justices for this woman into a trial for the Pharisees themselves. As each person sees their name and the potential charge against them they no longer a filled with self-righteousness and are so willing to convict others. They each leave and fade back into the crowd.
Finally, at the end of this scene Jesus says one of the most important things He ever said. It is largely lost on today’s modern ears. The episode ends:
… and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more.”
“Go and sin no more” are words we conveniently forget in our modern times. Jesus always is ready to extend mercy and forgive. However, it is incumbent upon us to seek to do good and avoid sin thereafter. It also implies that we must endeavor to honestly learn what is good and what is sinful. It is not enough to follow your conscience if your conscience has been formed by the secular world or false ideologies. We must seek the will of God and endeavor to do the will of God. Then we can “go and sin no more.”