Lately the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery has been coming up in conversation. So I decided to revisit it, and I was surprised to find this isn’t really a story about the woman caught in adultery. This is a story about the Pharisees. It’s a story about drawing lines in the sand, about condemning people. It’s not a story about the terrible sinner, it’s a story about me, the religious good girl. And it even has something to say about hospitality.
Jesus is teaching people at the Temple Mount, and the Pharisees are angry because so many people are listening to him. It’s just been the feast of Tabernacles, and Jesus has been in Jerusalem, basically announcing he’s the Messiah. The Pharisees even send the temple police to arrest Jesus, but they come back empty handed, saying, “We’ve never heard anyone talk like him before!”
The Pharisees are irate, “None of the leaders believe in him—just all the rabble. It’s only the crowd, ignorant of God’s Law that’s taken in by him—and damned.”
Not only do the Pharisees hate Jesus, they also are confident they know the law. They follow tight moral codes. They know right from wrong.
So they bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. They drag her in before the crowds listening to Jesus and say, “Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses says that such a person should be stoned. What do you say?”
The Law says this—but what do you say? Can you hear it? They’re trying to pit Jesus against the Law so that they can catch him out.
The woman is standing before everyone, trembling. The crowd stares at her.
If Jesus demands she be stoned, the Pharisees win—Jesus will lose the crowd. If he says she should go free, he’s contradicting the Law of Moses, and the Pharisees can nab him as a false teacher. Either way, they win. They don’t care about the woman at all. She isn’t a person, this is all just a trap to assert their power.
So Jesus says nothing, and instead bends over and starts writing in the dirt with his finger. The Pharisees keep badgering Jesus to say something.
He stands up.
“The sinless one among you, go first. Throw the stone.”
Then he bends down and keeps drawing in the dirt.
Crouched low, out of the picture, woman and the Pharisees are left standing at the front. The eyes of the whole crowd are on them.
It is silent.
The stones become heavy in the hands of the Pharisees.
Their faces flush as they think over their own past sins. Slowly, one by one, starting with the oldest, the Pharisees turn, drop their stones, and push their way through the crowd and slip away out the back.
The woman is left alone. It’s just her and Jesus.
Jesus stands up and says to her, “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”
She shakes her head. “No one, master,” she says softly.
And this is the part I never noticed before. Jesus is left with her. Jesus is the only sinless one in the group. Jesus said the sinless one should cast the first stone. The sinless one is the one with the right to cast the first stone. But he does not cast it. Instead….
“Then I do not condemn you either.” Jesus says.
He doesn’t draw a line in the sand and tell her she’s on the wrong side.
“Go on your way,” he says.
“And from now on,” he adds, “don’t sin.”
What does this story have to do with hospitality? With welcoming strangers? A couple of things, actually. Here’s what I learned from Jesus:
People are always people to Jesus. The Pharisees use the woman as a tool to make their point. They don’t care about her (or even, oddly enough, that much about her sin). They care about making a point. People are just things they can use to push their agenda. Even the disciples fall into this trap—seeing people’s suffering as a reason to debate theology, rather than someone worthy of consideration. How often do I fall into this trap? How often do I think in terms of institutions, or systems, or irritations, or interruptions, or being right rather than thinking about people? This is all about people. It’s people who need to be welcomed, people who need to be invited in, not abstract theological lessons.
In this story, Jesus, the only one with the right to condemn does not condemn. I don’t think the point of this story was the woman’s sin. Of course she was a sinner. Of course Jesus does not want her to continue in sin. But I think the point of the story is that the Pharisees were sinners just as much as the adulterer. Jesus is the only sinless one, the only one with the right to condemn people and yet he doesn’t. “Who is this Jesus person??!” I find myself asking.
Where do I put myself in this story? Well, I’m not Jesus. So I guess that puts me in the Pharisee camp, holding stones. And Jesus has just pointed out I don’t have a right to throw them.
I think sometimes as Christians, we look around at the world going to chaos around us, where people don’t seem to think twice about a moral code, and think it’s our job to condemn people. The culture is telling people that sin is just fine, and so we think it is our job to tell them that their moral choices are wrong. We can interact with “these people” but if we don’t constantly mention we disagree with their choices in our every encounter with them, we’re supporting them with our silence and we’re complicit in their sin. Did you hear that? Complicit. We want to condemn others because we’re worried their sin will rub off on us, and we don’t want to be guilty by association.
Except this story points out that it’s not my job to condemn. It’s Jesus’ job to condemn. It’s my job to show people Jesus, whoever they are—whether self-righteous law keepers, or people with their moral code in shambles.
That’s what welcoming the stranger is– it’s inviting people in, so that healing and restoration can begin, not shutting people out.
And when people encounter Jesus, with all his terrifying beauty and goodness and love, I think they will have a sense that he is the only sinless one, and they are in need of grace. Because that’s how I feel around Jesus.
What do you all think of this idea? Obviously there is a place to point out sin– I mean that’s all the prophets spent their time doing! But I’m interested that Jesus says his own purpose in coming was not to condemn the world but to save it, and that it is the job of the Spirit to convict people of sin. What should that look like for us?
5 thoughts on “On condemning broken things”
Thanks. Great story. Interesting that although the woman was “caught in adultery”, there is no mention of the man, who was presumably also “caught”, being brought by the Pharisees. Interesting that we all know John 3:16, but often we are not so familiar with John 3:17. I think God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world because he knew religious people, i.e. you and me!, would do a good job of that on our own.
Keep up the writing!!
Thanks for taking time to share, Alan, I really appreciate your encouragement! Good point that there was no mention of the man–that’s a detail that is often overlooked.
Painfully insightful and poignantly beautiful. I also remember the first time I realised that Jesus was the only one who could throw a stone. You have created an image of the grace we all need so completely. The quote that has been on the back of the bathroom door for some time from John Stott seems somewhat relevant here: “We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?'” Lord, may the church rise up and be Jesus in this hurting world!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mom! And Amen to that!