Some of the most common features of any spiritual journey worth walking are grace and truth. With grace, one can overdo the concept as an emotional experience. With truth, one can over-intellectualize it and/or filter it through the prism of ones culture. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day did the latter.
After a week of indirect sparring, an unsuccessful arrest attempt and much internal grumbling the Pharisees have had enough. They would have hoped that the “accursed” crowd would see Jesus as a fraud like they did or at least their own guards would follow through in arresting him as they had ordered. After all, they are the ones in rightful power to do this. Or so they think. Their presumption was based on how much truth they knew which was significant for that day. But the pesky thing is that grace and truth would be put in context of their own inadequacies through one who knows where the bodies are buried, challenges people to love and unlike the crowds has nothing to lose.
Then each went to his own house, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. 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. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 7:53- 8:11).
Then each went to his own house, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives- This seems inconsequential at first until you thing about the historical backdrop. In this seven day festival the custom from Moses was to be in small tents. With it over, they could be back to a standard of comfort again. But Jesus going to the Mount of Olives is different. This is a place where many saints of the Old Testament are buried. It was where King David fled to when his own son raised a rebellion against him. There were prophecies that this is a place that they glory of God would appear. In going there, Jesus spoke to the faithfulness of God of the past but the transcendence of God at the same time.
brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle- This last part is a subtle piece that one could easily overlook. “The middle” could speak to the not so sweet spot condemnation. As a counselor of people who are in recovery for drug addiction I seem clients every day that feel like that woman in feeling an immense sense of shame and that the punishment is coming. I come to this series with the premise that Jesus is always the same. In this setting Jesus sits down and teaches. For Christians that believe how the gospels end Jesus still is sitting but now at the right hand of the Father. And he still teaches today but through those with a gift who guard the deposit of faith including that “grace and truth were realized in Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.- Briefly, I would say that the common mistake of critics of Jesus then and now is to pigeonhole him into easily defined categories. Also, it is clear that at this point the Pharisees are cynics. For a cynic no answer is good enough- as long as the questioned plays their game then the cynics have the upper ground. As we see in this interaction, Jesus does not.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women- A little background is needed here. In the law of Moses there was moral, civil and ceremonial law. Think of them as three circles that intersect on some issues but not in all. The part about execution was for civil authority in Israel when it was still a functional nation. In Jesus’ time it was not. But Jesus has a surprise for them by making a zig where they expected a zag.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger- This is ironic since the subject is the Law and God wrote the Ten Commandments with a finger. Irony is often the language of Jesus in response to cynicism.
Let the one among you who is without sin… Jesus makes a point in this irony. They are not without sin. Augustine makes a good point on this passage of scripture.
The Lord now wrote on the ground, because he was seeking fruit…..But is it by punishing her that the law is is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess … this certainly is the voice of justice, those men pierced through as though by a dart, looking into themselves and finding themselves guilty (Augustine, Tractate 28).
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground – Jesus was purposeful. He bends down per his role to be a servant and show us an example. St. Bede addresses this as a divine pedagogy.
Christ, who twice bends down to write on the ground, teaches us to bend low in humility to examine ourselves both before and after addressing the faults of our neighbor. If his example becomes our practice, we will avoid as he did the extremes of being unjust and unmerciful toward others (St. Bede, Homily in Evan.).
Indeed the echo through history is a challenge to us to be Christlike and not a Pharisee.
So he was left alone with the woman before him- There is a lesson here on the nature of the voices of shame. I often tell my clients who are in recovery from addiction that shame does not carry anyone into long-term change. The very same author of this gospel in fact wrote the words “perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18). I can imagine that in his older years Apostle John thought of this scene when writing this to his spiritual children.
Woman, where are they? – With the voices of fear and shame out of the way, Jesus speaks to who to elicit her faith to see the change by him as the change agent.
Neither do I condemn you- Jesus came to save people in all their blemishes. Jesus would be qualified to cast the first stone but he did not.
Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more- Jesus grants absolution to her for the sake of holiness to be her ongoing experience. Where death had been her anticipation holiness can be where she has participation by grace.
Likewise is anyone who is understands and acts on the message of the gospel in its fulness. They know they are a sinner, they are caught, the condemnation could be considered fitting and Jesus shows himself as someone to come to and go with. Such love is greater than our sense of unworthiness. That is the heart of the gospel.