Imagine being caught in the most embarrassing situation you can think of… at your most shameful moment.
Imagine that the ones who caught you in this compromising position were the leaders of the local religious institution, the ones known for their flowery prayers and fine speeches and in-depth Sunday School lessons.
Imagine being dragged by your arm or your hair through the streets in whatever remnants of clothing you had about you when you were caught. Feel the disdainful stares of the women in the streets and the creepy eyes of the men taking note of every detail they could soak into their memory of your compromised state of appearance.
Think of the cold stares and snidely condemning words from the men who accompanied you on this journey and the way they sized you up when they found the perfect stone along the street. Picture what it might have been like to come around the corner into the courtyard outside the temple where this young teacher that was gaining so much attention happened to be.
This is the real life experience of a woman that remains unnamed in John’s gospel record as she was caught in the act of adultery.
Take a moment to read it in John 8.1-11.
There are so many questions about this passage. Its presence in the Scriptures is doubted by scholars, but it lies entirely harmoniously with the rest of John’s account and seems so authoritative to me that I cannot but embrace it.
I wonder… how did they catch her in the act?
If they caught her in the act, why did they only bring her and not the man?
What did Jesus write in the dust on the ground?
These questions are left unaddressed in the text. But the haunting scene is sufficiently played out in broad, bold strokes.
This woman, caught in her shame, was thrown in front of Jesus and her charges were leveled straightly: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.”(4) They feigned respect as they used the reverent term, ‘teacher’ (or Rabbi).
But bear in mind that these religious leaders were convinced that Jesus was here to overturn their way of living their religion. It seems that they were, as often was the case, attempting to expose the ways Jesus was teaching something contrary to the very Law of God. It was even in the way they posed the question, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”(5)
Jesus didn’t take the bait. He didn’t even bother to debate with them. He just bent over and began to write on the ground. We’re not told what he wrote, so I’ll not speculate. But I can’t help but think it was underscoring the innate awareness of the very sins of these men’s hearts. They continued to press him for an answer.(6-7a)
Jesus stood to his feet, looked at these men and no doubt at the woman herself. But there was something different in the way he looked at her. Those scribes and Pharisees looked at her and saw nothing but the evidence of the charges she was facing. Jesus, I believe, looked her in the eyes.
He said to these men something that did not dismiss the charges or minimize the guilt of the woman, but established the qualification for being the judge—or the executioner:
“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”(7b)
Then he bent down and continued to write in the dirt.
He knew precisely how many of them were there, stones in hand, ready to follow through on their judgment. But one by one the stones dropped to the pavement with a thud and their holders retreated. One by one. The realization that they, in all of their self-righteous glory, would be way out of line to claim the right of the first toss.(9)
Jesus stood and spoke to the woman and simply asked, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?”(10)
She answered, “No one, Lord.”(11a)
He didn’t say anything like, “It’s ok” or “it’s not a big deal” or even “you don’t deserve to die.”
He observed that there was no one there to condemn her—to pass judgment upon her.
But then Jesus, the only One who ever had the right to pass that judgment, said the words that resonate in the ears of every one of us who has ever come face to face with the reality of our own sin and guilt and shame:
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”(11b)
Jesus stepped into the mess of sin and brought grace—relentless love based on who HE was with no regard to who we are. And, if we simply believe in Him, we find there is now no condemnation for us… ever again.(Romans 8.1)
There is no indication that Jesus gave her a robe to put on or found some marriage counseling for her and her husband. There is no record of any other interaction. There is simply this account of a God who loved this sinful woman enough to step into the mess of her sin, but too much to leave her there.
When the stones dropped and the accusers walked away, there was only grace.