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. 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, 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."
The Scribes and the Pharisees - the leading religious men in the community - brought before Jesus a woman who, we are told, had been caught in the very act of adultery, and they asked Jesus what they should do with her.Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?"
And Jesus, we know, dealt tenderly with the woman, and turned the tables once again on His accusers, saying, Let him who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone. And the accusers left, and Jesus and the woman were left alone, and Jesus said, is no one left to condemn you? I don't condemn you either. Go and sin no more!
And I have never met anyone who does not love this passage, and I have never heard anyone suggest that Jesus did the wrong thing with this woman - that He should have been harsher with her - and yet at the same time I have never heard anyone ever suggest that we should be following Jesus example here in terms of the way we deal with people who break the law!
Now I appreciate, of course, that this is not a parable with a hidden message in it or any sort of story that is supposed to have a straightforward moral to it. Even so, the behavior of Jesus here has implications, surely, for the way in which we pass judgment (or perhaps refuse to pass judgment) on people who have broken the law.
Personally, I love this story, as I think we all do, and I think we all feel an immediate sympathy for the woman in this story. There she is - being dragged around roughly by this group of self-righteous men - bruised and disheveled no doubt.
And we sense her humiliation. And we sense her isolation in this ordeal. And we wonder where her lover is. And we wonder whether she had in fact been set up (by a cruel and domineering husband perhaps). We identify with this woman in her pain and in her vulnerability, just as we then rest with her in the healing balm of Jesus words, I don't condemn you either!
And yet of course we do not know the full story. Indeed, this woman may have been far more conniving and depraved than we generally imagine.
And I find myself wondering whether Jesus would have reacted in exactly the same way had it been the man who had been dragged before Him? And I wonder whether Jesus would have had the same attitude had the sentence been a prison term rather than stoning. And would Jesus have said the same thing if the crime had not been adultery but pedophilia (for example).
Would Jesus have said,I don't condemn you either mate. Go, and don't fiddle with children any more please.
There comes a point where mercy starts to look like weakness, and where the gracious offer of forgiveness starts to look more like a license to engage in abuse and depravity.
I have a friend who I mentioned in a sermon a couple of weeks ago who is still seeking justice in the case of the murder of his daughter. An unlicensed driver came flying through a red light and practically destroyed the car and the body of this poor young girl, and part of the ongoing pain for the family - for the father and mother and surviving sisters and brother - has been that the courts just don't seem to want to punish the person responsible!
I listened to a letter from the dead girls younger sister being read out on a radio show this week, and in it she asked pleadingly when the courts were going to take this sort of crime seriously. For if the courts are reluctant to mete out serious punishment for the reckless behavior of unlicensed drivers it can only indicate that our community does not take such crimes, and the tragic deaths that they cause, seriously.
And where do we find Jesus in all that pain? ...
You see, its a lot easier in cases like this to be Islamic or a Jew, because in the case of Judaism and Islam its all a matter of law!
Whether its the law of the Torah or the law of the Koran, the beauty about being a good Jew or a good Muslim is that its all a straightforward matter of knowing what the rules are and following them. Every situation in life has a law, and the law is as applicable to the individual as it is to the community as a whole. Every law has an appropriate punishment set for those who fail to keep it, and so if you break the law you can expect to endure the punishment, and the punishment for adultery was very straightforward - stoning.
You stone both lovers if you can catch them or, in the case where you only apprehend one of the offenders, you stone that one now and you keep a few rocks in your pockets for later in case you find the other one. Its rough justice for sure, but surely it is better than no justice at all!
Of course, if it were all so straightforward, it does raise the question of why the religious leaders ever brought the woman to Jesus in the first place. If the crime and punishment were all so straightforward, why did they ask Jesus for His opinion as to what they should do?
I think the answer to that lies in the fact that the local Jewish authorities had lost their right to carry out capital punishment on persons they deemed worthy of execution. Presumably this is the same reason why when, later on, they wanted to kill Jesus, they had to involve Pilate, the Roman governor.
They had lost the right to put people to death by their own authority. The question therefore of whether or not they should stone the woman was therefore a question of whether they should by abiding by the law of God or by the law of the land.
We are told, of course, that the whole point of this encounter was that this woman's accusers were trying to trick Jesus, and indeed it seems that the trick was almost identical to the one where they asked Jesus about whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22).
You will remember on that occasion that they thought they had Jesus trapped because if he said that they should pay taxes that he would be seen as a traitor to His own people, but if He told them not to pay taxes He would have been guilty of insurrection before the Romans!
Likewise here if he tells them that they should not stone the woman then He seems to be disregarding the law of God, but if He tells them that they should stone her He is over-ruling the decision made by Rome.
When seen in this light, it becomes obvious that sympathy for the woman was not expected to play any part in this encounter. This was a legal issue. They were trying to ensnare Jesus in a legal dilemma whereby they were forcing Him to choose between the law of God and the law of men. I don't think anyone was expecting Him to put aside all law and choose the woman!
Knowing Jesus quick mind, might we not have expected Him at this point to answer His questioners in a similar way to the way He did to the taxation question? 'Whose picture is seen on the front of the law court? Caesar's? Then render unto Caesar the cases that fall under the jurisdiction of Caesar and you stick to the moral/spiritual laws that are the more obviously personal religious issues anyway!'
Its interesting, isn't it, that Jesus just doesn't start playing those mind games with these religious leaders at all, presumably because in this case a woman's life is at stake. He doesn't give them a witty or clever answer. He doesn't respond with, let me tell you a story as He does in so many other places. Indeed He doesn't seem to want to engage with these men at all at first. We're told that He spends most of His time in this encounter looking at the ground and doodling in the dust! He only makes the one statement, let him amongst you who has no sin cast the first stone.
This is a beautiful story, I feel, and yet I appreciate that it raises a lot of difficult questions:
* What sort of model is this that Jesus leaves us?
* Is it really appropriate to ask our judges that they be free from sin before they pass judgment on anybody else?
* Does I don't condemn you either really have any place in a system of government
* Is Jesus really concerned about justice at all?
There are lots of questions raised by this encounter, and I dont pretend to have the answers. There is though one thing that comes through loud and clear in this story and is entirely unambiguous and it is this: that Jesus is one who forgives.I don't condemn you, says Jesus. I don't condemn you either
Why not? Because the woman wasn't as bad as everybody made out? No! No doubt she was full of problems but I don't condemn you either!
Was it because there were lots of mitigating circumstances, such that this woman couldn't really be blamed because she was stuck in a bad marriage with a violent and domineering husband perhaps? Maybe that was the case and maybe not. Either way,I don't condemn you either!
Was it because it was her male partner who was really to blame - the guy who got away, the guy who seduced her in the first place? Maybe and maybe not, but I get the feeling that He who would not condemn the woman would have said to her partner too, if He had met him, I don't condemn you either.
Jesus forgives. It is His very nature to forgive! What we do with that on a legal and political level I do not know, but this I know: that Jesus forgives.
You know, one of the interesting things I discovered in my research on this passage is that it seems to have been a relatively late addition to the Gospel of John! It seems that some of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel did not have this story included in them, and yet the scholars seem unanimous in recognizing that this was in itself a very ancient story from the life of Jesus.
The only obvious explanation for this was that early church, as it emerged from being a sect within Judaism and struggled with the whole abandonment of the rule of law in the Christian life, found this story from the life of Jesus to be just a little too uncomfortable to deal with at first. It took time before they were able to fully embrace this Jesus!
For it is an uncomfortable story. It is easier, in so many ways, to deal with a God who relates to us only through rules and laws and regulations. And yet those of us who know the depth of our own human frailty and sinfulness recognize that this, in the end, is the only God we will ever be able to deal with. I don't condemn, I don't condemn, I don't condemn you either.