(1) Our reactions to this text
What strikes you when you read this?
How would you describe Jesus as portrayed here?
There is a clear comparison being made here!
(2) A Callous trap
Even before we knew this was a test or trap for Jesus, we would be horrified by the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees. These were supposed to be people guiding relationships with God. They were supposed to be teaching and interpreting God’s law, not being the moral police. So fixed had they become on their own ways and agendas, that God could hardly get a look in. When God literally stared them in the face (i.e. Jesus did), they didn’t recognise him. They were religious control-freaks, who opposed Jesus from very early on – when Jesus wanted to spend time with sinners and outcasts.
When Jesus wanted to show them what God was really like (as opposed to how they had been acting) they wanted none of it. In fact they wanted to destroy Jesus and his brand (of ministry); in this case, by trapping him in a no-win situation. This was dis-graceful behaviour – how does someone connect with God (or faith) ever again when something like this happens to them. This would be completely destructive and thoroughly isolating to any person.
In bringing this woman out into the public, “… making her stand before all of them”, they showed absolutely no regard for her at all. They clearly didn’t care. This was a humiliating, depersonalising, devaluing thing to have done. This woman was just a pawn in their attempts to trap Jesus. They were just so desperate to discredit Jesus, and to dispense with the challenge that he brought to them. The scribes and Pharisees [actually a bit of an awkward coalition] must have had some long meetings planning this strategy. And they were probably congratulating themselves for this seemingly ingenious plan.
Referring to Jesus here as “teacher” (v.4) would have been sarcastic (rather than respectful), as they were trying to back Jesus into a corner. Verse 5 delivers the test. If Jesus disagrees with the stoning, then he is seemingly standing against the Law of Moses (and being lax toward moral standards). If Jesus agrees with the stoning, then he contradicts his own teaching on compassion and mercy. This would also potentially cause Jesus some trouble with the Roman authorities who controlled the issuing of death sentences. A no-win situation! Jesus was either a law-breaker or a hypocrite.
Now in his mind, Jesus would have to come up with a solution that would help this poor isolated woman. Jesus would be most interested in what would help her personal situation and spiritual condition. Jesus would also be interested in holding these scribes and Pharisees to account for their dis-graceful and destructive behaviour.
If we were investigators of this incident, there might be quite a few questions we could ask?
(a) How was it that this woman was “caught in the very act of committing adultery”? Was this whole thing a set-up? Could they really have been that devious!
(b) Where was the man who was a party to this adultery? The Law of Moses treated the man just as guilty as the woman in such a case (Lev.20:10, Deut.22:22), yet only the woman was brought to appear here! [This is completely unjust! The woman is then just an easy and convenient target.] Was the man in question actually in the employ of the accusers?
(c) Where were the required witnesses, as proscribed in the same law (Deut. 17:6, 19:15)? Was the lawful need for witnesses being ignored, while the most extreme penalty was being demanded? This whole charge seems very suspect!! [The harshest penalty of death by stoning was hardly ever applied. But this of course was very political, and was really about power. The quest for power always obliterates mercy.]
(3) Jesus’ response
So Jesus would want to achieve two things: uplift the woman and reverse some of the damage that has been done; and challenge the hardheartedness and injustice of the scribes and Pharisees. And this, in one concise sentence, is exactly what Jesus did!
But first … what was Jesus writing on the ground? This has been long debated. This is what I think. Judges, in the courts of the time, wrote down their sentence before they delivered it. I reckon that Jesus was imitating this, but with a twist … not writing down any judgement against the woman, but rather writing down the sins and potential sentence of this woman’s accusers. This would be consistent with Jesus’ own teaching – “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged; for with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt.7:1-2).
What they were doing with this woman, was likely far worse than anything she had done. They probably didn’t know her background, or what incidents had led up to her behaviour that day – what suffering there had been in her past. And it seems they wouldn’t have cared. Not one of these accusers would be anywhere near sinless, yet they still tried this on! [And this woman was a child of God.]
So Jesus would, at the same time, want to disassemble this attempted trap, and also offer the woman a vital and loving ministry of liberation, healing and salvation.
Here it comes …
Let anyone among you who is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.
Brilliant! The scribes and the Pharisees were caused to drop their stones to the ground (at their own feet), and one-by-one follow their ringleaders (the “elders”), right away from this scene. They were called to account for their own behaviour. Some, we hope, would have taken stock and regretted what they had done. We hope that some of the accusers might have been changed that day, and never pick up a stone again.
In the eyes of the public, a great injustice had been challenged, and a miscarriage of justice averted. As those stones fell to the ground, injustice actually bowed to Jesus. In this reply, there was no moral laxity, no contradiction of mercy [and no premature conflict with the Romans]. Game, set, match!
Jesus was left alone with the woman. There was one sinless person who could have thrown a stone, but he did not! The way forward for this woman was not through condemnation but rather through understanding. If she was not to sin anymore, then she would need to be inspired in that direction through an offering of love and grace (that would restore her sense of value). This was stunning, gutsy, liberating grace!
Creatively, in the way in which he speaks with her, Jesus restores this woman’s personhood and gives her a voice. Would any of the callousness, or condemnation, or bold accusations stick? Or could this woman be restored to health? Could this woman even find salvation? Where are they … has no one condemned you? The woman replies, “No one sir”. This releases the woman from EXTERNAL hindrances … people getting in the way of God’s best intentions for her.
She is then released from all INTERNAL hindrances … those feelings happening inside this woman that were previously blocking out God’s love. Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again. She was released from shame (and any feelings of unworthiness), because no one could rightly claim to be any better than her. This also releases the woman from feelings of guilt. She receives forgiveness and begins the process of discipleship. Clearly this woman responds to Jesus’ creative and compassionate approach to her, and she now embraces new possibilities.
(4) Questions of us
(a) Do we turn people away – or rather encourage them toward God (and offer them a place to belong)?
(b) Do we use certain labels – or rather see the person that God wishes to love?
(c) Do we have any stones in our hands?
(d) Do we bring a positive or negative view of God to the table?
(5) Our vision
What does all this say about Jesus’ character?
The purpose of this church is to allow Christ to transform us together so that His [i.e. Jesus’] character, ministry and mission are expressed through all of us.
What does all this say about Jesus’ ministry and mission??
· Justice – opposing injustice
· Lovingly committed to people’s well-being
· Proactive/outgoing – looking for opportunities to minister
· Offering salvation