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.”
Jesus went into the temple and began to teach. The people were impressed; the teachers of the Law—the scribes—and the Pharisees were incensed. They decided to entrap Jesus.
These leaders somehow knew of a woman who was caught committing the act of adultery. They made her stand before the group and spoke to Jesus, accusing her of committing adultery. Then, calling him, “teacher,” they told him what the Law of Moses commanded concerning such women, that she is to be stoned. “Now what do you say?” they asked.
It was a trick. In Jesus’ day, a Jew had no say in the corporal punishment of such a crime. That was Rome’s job. So, if Jesus said “stone her,” he would have been at odds with Roman rule.
But if Jesus had said not to stone her, it would have seemed as though he was disregarding the Law, in spite of the fact that the woman’s accusers were taking only the part of the law they wanted to use as their accusation. (The law actually required both parties in the sin be executed, though “stoning” is not specified unless the woman was a betrothed virgin.)
Jesus was not buying into their scheme. He wasn’t going to engage with them in the way they were baiting him.
Here stood a woman, we can imagine, head bowed in her shame, surrounded by men in the temple of Jerusalem during a festival time, where people were coming and going. What a spectacle this must have been.
Scripture is silent on what Jesus wrote when he used his finger in the dirt. Rather than speak, Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground. Then he stood and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stopped and wrote on the ground again. The accusers dispersed. Standing there, draped in all their religious and fabric finery, they were before Jesus in as naked a form as they’d ever been. Their sins had been exposed.
When God wrote the Law on the tablets for Moses to bring to the people, He wrote them with his finger. As the teachers of that very Law were attempting to trick Jesus, the author of the Law, Jesus knelt down and wrote in the same manner.
When her accusers were no longer there, Jesus spoke to her for the first time. Whether they were alone or if his disciples were standing close-by, it must have felt as though there were no other people in the world, much less at the temple. The woman was standing, Jesus was still kneeling.
And then He stood and turned to her. “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” He asked her. “No one,” she answered. And she called him “Lord.”
“Neither do I condemn you,” he told her. “Go, and sin no more.”
In the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time, such an act of writing on the ground would have been recognized as an act of refusal and disagreement. His approach to responding to their accusations against this woman was not to give them credibility. Instead, Jesus holds a mirror up to the crowd of teachers and leaders.
In the end, Jesus treats all of them as equals—the scribes, the Pharisees and the adulterous woman. Typing “adulterous woman” calls to my mind that there could also be “cheating scribe” or “lying Pharisee.” The passage does not let us in on the nature of their sins, only the woman’s. What we learn here, what we are reminded of, is that none of us is without sin. From the most senior among us, to the youngest and all in-between, we have all sinned and stand in need of grace and mercy.
Do you ever wonder why Jesus said what he said to the woman? Perhaps for all the nakedness of her sin, what Jesus knew that the accusers did not, was the condition of her heart, the circumstances of her situation, and where she was spiritually at that very moment, for she called him, “Lord.”
“Go and leave your life of sin,” he concluded.
Understood rather than condemned. Saved rather than stoned. Sin exposed yet covered in Jesus’ love.
What about you? Think about a time where you were “caught with your hand in the cookie jar” – when your sin was exposed for others to see. How did you feel? What did you want more than anything at that moment?
Dear God, help me to admit to you and to others my sin. Open my heart to receive your grace and extend that same grace to others. Amen.
About the Author
Rev. Mark Brainerd is the Senior Associate Pastor for Congregational Care and Administration at PHPC.