A reflection on John 8:2-11 for Sunday, 23 October, 2022 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
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.’
John 8:2-11 (NRSVA)
The timing of the encounter above is revealing: Our text begins: ’Early in the morning…’ The location is also worthy of note: We are on the grounds of the ’temple’. A place symbolic of the ‘law of Moses’.
Although a crowd eager to hear Jesus has already gathered, it all still reeks of a pre-dawn raid – a planned ambush involving secret knowledge of the previous night’s indiscretion. A trap laid early – but not sprung until the teacher has already drawn a temple-devoted crowd.
Alarmingly, this heartless snare was set by the religious leadership of the day. Holders of the law turned to spying and catching the sinner.
Make no mistake, however. Theirs is a bait mission. Only the female is taken in an act of selective conviction. Publicly humiliated and shamed, she is now used in an attempt to lure, trap, and ’test’, another.
The whole scene is staged in the hope of making a more significant ’charge’.
Bait. Organised religion has a lot to answer for. Here it is oppressive and mad. A woman caught in the blinding light of condemnation.
‘Teacher,’ they say, ’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?’ The repeated ’Now…’ may reveal tone. They demand an answer.
The naming of Jesus as ’Teacher’ may also be revealing. Is this an attempt to keep the people onside? Jesus’ actions and words have drawn crowds to see and listen. This travelling healer is rapidly establishing a firm reputation as an expositor of the heart of God. In doing so, he has already turned the temple tables becoming a threat to those invested in the traditions growing from Moses’ law. A dangerous, rogue, ’Teacher’.
All this gets to the heart of their fears. These ’scribes and Pharisees’ are invested in the Mosaic law. They have studied and know what it commands. Their question has nothing to do with ignorance of the texts handed down.
This is to do with Jesus: ‘…what do you say?’
And yet our text is clear that Jesus has no desire to ’say’ anything. Instead, the revealer of the heart of God ’…bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.’ As many have observed, this is the only moment we know of that Jesus ever wrote – and John offers no indication of its content!
Our text, however, leaves plenty of space to speculate as to the content and motive of Jesus’ dust-doodlings. Is this simply a strategic way of slowing everything down and taking the heat out of the situation? Is Jesus scribbling references to the myriad of texts on God’s forgiveness? Perhaps Jesus simply sees all the holes in their perverted plan and seeks to give them space to calm and consider. A deep breath. Maybe everyone needs a moment to draw their thoughts together. The leaders? This woman? Does even Jesus need a moment to consider his response?
Perhaps even the incarnate one is surprised by this animalistic trap.
If our text tells us anything about motive I suspect it is that Jesus has no desire to answer their question. It is revealed in their response: ‘…they kept on questioning him.’ They have to badger Jesus for an opinion. A perverted and misplaced belief that their trap is poised to close.
Jesus’ silence, however, is certainly not because he has nothing to contribute. His eventual command: ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ If this woman has gained any hope surely it begins to dissipate in this moment.
Which of these honoured holy men will throw first?
Jesus, however, even as he returns to his writing, has exposed their hypocrisy. Their religious pretence is – at best – a facade. The thud of each rock hitting the ground must have both shocked and relieved their prisoner. Perhaps it did the same for her captors – and even for Jesus himself.
I love the way Jesus then stands and asks: ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ Surely Jesus also heard these stones fall and the slow retreat of all her accusers. He knows what has happened. Her whispered reply: ‘No one, sir.’
Yet even now there is one who remains. He is the only one ‘without sin’. He is also – beautifully – the only one without a stone to drop. His God-revealing response: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ Caught in the light of grace.
It is the gospel.
There is movement in the way John presents this story. Down. Up. Down. Up. Each time Jesus kneels in the dust he writes – and more importantly – makes dignified space. In the midst of all the prying, accusing, and staring, Jesus averts his gaze drawing attention from the accused to himself. He takes the tension out of the situation. Soon they are no longer focused on her, but demanding Jesus’ answer.
It gives her space and dignity.
The second time Jesus squats also creates a dignified space. This time, however, it draws attention from his own penetrating words – and gives these accusers a way out.
Every one of them takes it.
A second averting of his gaze to create space and dignity.
This is such a revealing moment. They came accusing another – one they saw as different and deserving of their act of murder. Their leaving, however, is an admission that she is not different – but the same. As a direct result, they choose grace over condemnation – in a resigned, public admission of the limitation of the law. I guess they too are caught in the light.
However reluctantly – theirs is an initial choosing of grace over condemnation.
And that, according to Jesus, is always the best – most God-like – response.
Do you think we inherently know that throwing stones is not a good idea? Why do you think these leaders abandon their trap so quickly?
What do you think this experience does for these religious leaders? How will it change them – and especially their approach to the law of Moses? Do you think it is a new ’start’ for them?
What do you think this experience does for this woman? How will it change her?