Jesus and the Adulteress (John 8:1-20)

Jesus spent quite a bit of time in the temple, teaching. Sometimes he does so out in the court of the Gentiles, especially in Solomon’s porch, the covered colonnade around the outside. Other times he teaches in the temple proper—that is, the relatively small area containing the court of Israel and the building containing the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. This area is off-limits to Gentiles, was the part that corresponds to the tabernacle of Moses. On this day Jesus is in the latter place, near the treasury. John does not tell us what Jesus is teaching about but it is not hard to see him sitting in the shade cast by the treasury with a small crowd before him.

Whatever he was intending to teach, another lesson is about to be forced on him. Here comes a delegation of scribes and Pharisees dragging a poor, distraught woman with them. Forcing her to stand in the clear space between Jesus and his audience they pre-empt whatever it was that Jesus wanted to say and forced their own issue onto him.

“This woman was caught in the very act of adultery!” They tell him.

Now, the question that jumps out at me is: Doesn’t it take two to commit adultery? Where is the man? In the culture of Jesus’ day women were little better than possessions, so this “other man” has not only coveted his neighbour’s wife, but has actually tarnished his property, stolen some of its value. In fact, he is guiltier than she is! He had the power and authority in the situation, not her. And perhaps that is why he is not there and she is: what the scribes and Pharisees need is not a person but a symbol. The man would likely have argued his case, clouded the issue. But a helpless, scared woman they could count on to be silent, a mere pawn in their scheme.

So they lay their trap. It is a very simple one: “The Law says she should be stoned, what do you say, Jesus?” It is a sort of pincer movement, trapping Jesus (so they think) between the Mosaic Law and his position as a friend of the people: If he doesn’t say “stone her” then he shows himself to be no true Judean, no son of Abraham; but if he does say it he will lose the affection of the people who will see him as just another religious authority who doesn’t really care about them. Plus he would violate some of his own teaching.

Jesus’ reaction? He ignores them! He does stop talking but just bends down and begins to write in the dirt. It isn’t that he has no answer, but rather it is an eloquent way of making a point: “I didn’t come to get involved in your legalistic wrangling, but to teach life” is the message. Jesus is, or would prefer to be, above that kind of thing. But, oh, the temptation! How often do we sidetrack ourselves on such issues—assigning guilt, “ranking” sins, dealing in death—when he wants to open us up to life? Because of their insistence that Jesus deal with their issue they lost whatever message Jesus was wanting to bring—and not only them, but those who had been listening, and on down to us; All of us lost out.

For they will not take the hint, they keep up their demands for an answer and finally Jesus stands up and gives them his attention. An expectant hush falls as they wait to see which “error” Jesus will make, for they believe that he is surrounded, that there is no way out of their trap. No way out on their level, that is true, but Jesus rises above their level! “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Jesus does not deny the validity of the Law, he just makes it impossible to enforce.

Again he stoops down and begins writing in the dirt. It is one of those unknowable things that people (myself included) love to speculate about: What did he write? My own  guess is that he wrote things like “liar”, “hypocrite”, “proud”, “thief”…listing the sins of the accusers. And as he writes, those accusers melt away into the crowd, beginning with the oldest, those who have more experience and self-knowledge, and ending with the youngest, those who tend to be more critical and judgemental, more sure of their own rightness.

After a while Jesus stands back up and “saw no-one but the woman”. Now it is clear later that the two of them are not, actually, alone, that the crowd he has been teaching is still there, but there is no-one else right in front of him. So Jesus asks the woman “where are your accusers?” She does not answer him. Perhaps she is still stunned at this turn of events, perhaps she does not know where they went. So Jesus adds another question: “Has no-one condemned you?” Now, in her relief and surprise, she answers him: “No-one, Lord.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, sin no more.”

Notice that Jesus does not say that the accusations were wrong, or that they do not matter to him, he is just focussed on a more important issue: Condemnation. His final words to her, sin no more, show that he accepted the truth of the allegations, as she did, but condemnation is different. Condemnation is not about truth, about what happened, but about consequences and punishment. Jesus, as he tells us elsewhere, didn’t come to condemn the world, but to bring life.

What a wonderful sense of relief, joy, love must have filled that woman! To have been so exposed, yet so accepted! Just like the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, how she must have wanted to tell everyone what had happened.

How often do we minister to the world after Jesus’ pattern? How often, instead, are we those who bring condemnation? Do we really accept those whose particular sins offend us, trusting God to help them change, or do we demand they change first? How can we justify such attitudes, especially in the light of the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13?

But now Jesus turns to those he has been teaching and brings the lesson home to them: “I am the light of the world”. Light: That which uncovers, makes visible. This woman is certainly in the light, exposed. But Jesus is not just talking about her, for he adds “He who follows me shall not walk in darkness.” Now, it is obviously easier to walk in the light than in the dark and we usually act as though it is an unmixed blessing, but we need to be aware that light exposes not only the holes and other obstacles that get in our way, but also those things inside us that we would rather keep in darkness. However, Jesus goes on to add that the light we will have is the light of life, just as he ministered life to this woman instead of condemnation and death.

Apparently not all of the Pharisees have gone, as some pop up now to challenge him: “You bear witness of yourself; Your witness is not true.” In other words, who do you think you are? Who gave you the right or authority to talk like this? Jesus responds first that he knows better because he is aware (unlike them) of where he comes from. Then, perhaps pointing to the woman, he criticises them for being concerned with externals—judging according to the flesh—while he does not judge, although if he were to judge, he would do it properly, according to the heart, because he understands the heart of the Father.

Jesus finishes by pointing out that there is, in fact, another witness to his authority: the Father. If they knew the Father, as they claimed to, they would understand, but they don’t. It seems odd that the Pharisees do not come back at him on that point (as they do at other times) but perhaps they did in a way; maybe John’s comment “no-one laid hands on him for his hour was not yet come” is a subtle way of telling us that they were angry beyond words and forced to resort to violence, or at least try.

This is a wonderful story and gives us several insights into the character of Jesus (the same character he wants to form in us). But there is even more here: we can use the story as a parable for ourselves.

As Christians we all pray and for most of us our prayer times are filled either with praise, worship, and exultation or else with petition and intercession. These are all good and needful things and we should certainly exercise ourselves in them. But there is more. Sometimes it is good to come to God in silence, like the woman here. Some refer to this as centering prayer, and I suspect it forms part of what Brother Lawrence called the practice of the presence of God.

Being truly silent is not easy, yet it can work many things in us. One is that at times, as we are silent, things will bubble up into our awareness—past (forgiven) sins, guilt, old hurts, awareness of our failings, and so on—and begin to accuse us, just as the Pharisees accused the woman in the story. These are the voices that hold us back, that keep us from experiencing all that God has for us. They want us to feel condemned, unworthy. They want our death.

How hard it is to stay silent! How strong the desire to excuse, explain, diminish, or else to wallow in the guilt, to almost revel in being a worm, dirty rags. But when we do, we continue to give those things power in our lives. Better to emulate the woman and stay silent, to let Jesus deal with them—for he will. And if we do, we will find the voices falling silent, the accusations fading.

Stay silent and still in his presence. Wait in wonder as he does his work. And listen, listen for his voice and those wonderful words: “Neither do I condemn you”! To know that, not because it says so in scripture but because you have heard him say it to you is real peace. And power, for when he adds “go and sin no more” he doesn’t mean for us to try harder to do the impossible, he is telling us that the power of the past has been broken, that we are free of it all, not just forgiven, and that real change is possible. It is, in fact, more of a promise than a command.

Silence, real silence, is both difficult and scary for most of us. Yet for those of us determined enough or, like this woman, desperate enough to come before him in silence there are blessings and benefits that are truly precious. Proverbs tells us repeatedly that a wise person is often silent: Perhaps we should listen.

“If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God himself.”
—Isaac of Nineveh


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One Response to “Jesus and the Adulteress (John 8:1-20)”

  1. what should be, what should not be, and condemning hypocrisy « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci Says:

    […] Jesus and the Adulteress (John 8:1-20) ( […]

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