Preached 2 March 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Well … a very familiar story, and one seized upon gratefully by anyone producing a dramatised version of the life of Christ. The woman cowering against the wall, her clothes torn, mascara running down her cheeks along with her tears. The mob, eagerly poised with stones at the ready. A few weasel-faced Pharisees, apoplectic with righteous indignation, pointing accusing fingers. And Jesus, dressed as ever in a spotlessly white robe, his back turned on them all, doodling in the dust. Not, it has to be said, a very accurate depiction of what is being described in that passage from John 8, but let’s not worry about that for the moment.
Let’s concern ourselves first over where this story belongs. If you were following it in the church Bibles, you might have read the footnote. It’s quite a complicated footnote, but what it broadly says is: “This story almost certainly doesn’t belong here.” And, no, it doesn’t. It belongs to a fragment of an original manuscript which, very early on, was slotted into this place in John’s gospel, but it should very likely be in Luke’s gospel. The language is that of Luke not of John. John never speaks of “the scribes and Pharisees” but Luke does, all the time. And Luke talks about Jesus going to the Mount of Olives for the night then coming back to the temple early the next morning … just like here. And because, in Luke’s gospel, that happens only in the week before Jesus is arrested and crucified, that is almost certainly where this story belongs. In Holy Week … as the religious authorities begin to pull out all the stops in an effort to force Jesus to put his head in the noose they have prepared for him.
In this story, it is clear that they think that they have him cornered. They have brought to him a woman whom, they say, has been caught in the very act of adultery; and they have quoted the law at him … the law of God, the law of Moses. They have quoted Deuteronomy, chapter 22, which clearly and unambiguously prescribes the death penalty for just such a crime. And they ask Jesus. “So … what do you suggest we do?
The trap they are laying for him is this. If he says “Go ahead and stone her,” they will be able to take him before Pilate and accuse him of sedition. That is because only the Romans who rule Judea have the right to apply the death penalty on anyone within Judea. But if Jesus says, “No, don’t execute her,” he will be directly contradicting the law of God and setting himself up in opposition to Moses, the law-giver.
So how will Jesus jump? They wait expectantly for the trap to snap shut. And while we wait with them, let’s just straighten out the cinema-screen depiction of this story as I outlined it earlier, so that we might understand the situation better.
First, the woman is not cowering against a wall. Jesus is teaching in the outer court of the temple … a vast open space, a kind of Speakers’ Corner, where lots of rabbis have their patches and teach anyone who will stop and listen to them. Jesus has simply found a vacant area and seated himself, cross-legged, on the marble floor, and begun to speak. At the time of our story, a good crowd of pilgrims, up for the Passover, have seated themselves around him in a broad semi-circle. There are no stones to hand for them to brandish even if they are a mob, which they are not; and the Pharisees have placed the woman “in the midst” … that is, between Jesus and his listeners. And it may well be that she is, to our eyes, not a woman but a child. The eminent theologian and expert on Judaism, Joachim Jeremias, has argued that the penalty of stoning was prescribed only for a betrothed girl … and because betrothal took place as soon after a girl’s twelfth birthday as possible and lasted only until her marriage about a year later, this “woman” taken in adultery was either twelve or thirteen. The penalty for older women caught in adultery was not stoning but strangulation.
The Pharisees are still waiting for an answer and so are we, but Jesus seems in no hurry to give one. Instead he is doodling with his finger in the dust that lies in a film on the marble pavement. But now the patience of the Pharisees begins to fray. “Come on,” they say. “You must have a view on this. You have views on everything else. The law says we must stone this woman. Do you agree?”
Now, it seems to me that, even if Jesus had not come up with the marvellous answer he gave, he was not so trapped by the situation as we might suppose. Even I can see that he had at least two options open to him. He could, for a start, have asked: “Before we take this any further, where is the other adulterous party?” You see, the law did not prescribe the death penalty for just the woman … it prescribed it for both parties to the adulterous act. “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death — the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife” (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). So where was the man? If he was not under arrest too, there was no charge to answer for the law required that both parties were to be prosecuted and executed?
Or Jesus could have asked: “Where are the witnesses?” The law required that “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting the person to death, and then the hands of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). There is no suggestion in the story that the witnesses to the act of adultery were present. Indeed it seems pretty clear that they were not.
But Jesus chose not to go down neither of those fairly obvious escape routes. Why not? It can only be because he chose to make what was happening an opportunity to tackle the issue of law and sin head-on.
And that’s where, to my mind, his writing with his finger in the dust becomes of very great significance. People have always wondered what he wrote … or whether he was just doodling, averting his eyes in embarrassment from a half-naked young woman. But I hardly think Jesus would be embarrassed by a half-naked girl. And I personally think the writer of this story has made it pretty clear what Jesus was writing. In one and the same breath he mentions “the Law of Moses” and the fact that Jesus turned and wrote on the ground “with his finger”. The reference would be clear to anyone versed in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy chapter 9 verse 10, Moses tells the Israelites how he was given “two stone tablets inscribed by …” What? “Inscribed by the finger of God, and on them were all the commandments the LORD.”
So I am 99.99% certain that if you had looked over Jesus shoulder as he turned his back on the Pharisees and the woman they had brought to him, you would have seen him writing … “I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other gods but me. You shall not make for yourselves any idol. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Honour your father and your mother.”
The Pharisees were invoking the Law of God. But the Law is one law made up of many precepts or points. As James will later say: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. And as Paul will later tell the Galatians: “Say yes to the Law if you want to but if you do you are required to obey the whole law.” There is no picking and choosing between this point and that. One disrespectful word against your mother or father, for example, is enough to undo you utterly.
So Jesus stands up, looks full into the faces of the Pharisees and tells them. “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” The right to cast the first stone was the right of the witnesses to the crime. You recall what I quoted earlier: “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person shall be put to death. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting the person to death, and then the hands of all the people.” But as I also said earlier, it is clear that no witnesses to the adultery were there in the temple court. And, by the way Jesus has phrased his reply, he is drawing attention to that fundamental flaw, while at the same time refusing to comment on the punishment. “I’m aware that this whole thing is a set-up,” he seems to be saying. “A hundred quid to some bloke down the pub. Go and get some hard-up young lass into bed. Anyone’ll do so long as she’s engaged or married. Tip us off, and one of our lot’ll come in and grab her while you scarper …. Yes, it’s a set-up alright, but let’s pretend it’s not. Let’s pretend you have the other guilty party in custody too. Let’s pretend you have the necessary two witnesses. So off you go. Take the girl to the city gate and stone her, but since you haven’t really got any witnesses, decide now which of you is going to start the stoning. Choose someone who is less guilty than she is, someone who has never broken the Law.” Then he turns his back on them again, bends down and continues writing … “You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony. You shall not covet.”
To their credit, they took the point. The most senior Pharisee looked at his watch, said “Good, Lord … is that the time. Must dash!” and disappeared. And one by one all the others followed suit.
Slowly the girl gets to her feet. She stares at this man who is still writing in the dust. And at last he looks up. “Have they all gone?” he says. “Has no-one condemned you?” She shakes her head, and gives a sudden sob and rubs a hand across her eyes. She is still in a state of shock. Minutes ago, the most powerful men in her world had her in their clutches, determined to kill her. Now they are gone. But she still has this other man to face: another powerful man – a man so powerful that he’s just sent all those other powerful men packing. He is still there because (though she doesn’t know this) he can cast the first stone … if he wishes. For he alone in the whole human race is without sin. But instead, after a long look into her eyes and into her soul, he tells her. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
I wish the world could get hold of this. I wish that some parts of the church could get hold of this. God the Father in heaven is the ultimate judge — “the judge of all the earth” he is called in the Old Testament. But now that I am here, says Jesus, “the Father judges no-one but has given all judgement to me” (John 5.22). Yet during his time on earth and even now in 2003, Jesus chooses not to exercise the judgement that has been given to him … Not even when, as here in this story, people try to thrust it upon him. He will not even act as an accuser. In John 5 he tells the Pharisees they are in big trouble because of their rejection of him, but, he says, “Do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses on whom your hopes are set.” And now, here, he says to this woman: “Neither do I condemn you.”
This is the message of the New Testament … the Gospel of Christ! We are fond of quoting John 3.16 but John 3.17 belongs with it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” There will be a day when Jesus will judge, but it is not now. “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” but he will not judge now. His is the great white throne in the heaven of Revelation 20 verse 11. The throne that is the judgement seat of Christ. But it is a future judgement seat. Now, Jesus is with us (and for us) as Saviour and he will accept no other role. He brings no charge against us, though he knows our sin; but rather, in his grace, he invites us to share now in the absolute acquittal that he secured on the cross for all who will place their trust in him.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” says Jesus. And here at the start of preparation for Easter he says it to us. It is an invitation to throw religion out of the window. Religion and law switch his words around. They turn them into: “Sin no more and then I won’t condemn you.” And because, as we have seen, there is none of us that is without sin, that road leads either to sanctimonious, deluded self-righteousness or to despair.
But, no, here at the start of Lent, Jesus says: “Come and learn what grace is. Come and do not accept that grace in vain. Come, and understand afresh, understand more deeply than ever, this great truth … That while you were yet sinners, I died for you. Before you ever repented, before you ever came to faith, I who knew no sin shouldered your sins, along with a Roman cross of wood, and went to Calvary … that those sins could be judged in me and could therefore be forgiven in you. Come and witness again my great love for you; that in response to that love you might change, you might amend your life, you might open yourselves up to my Spirit, and in the power of that same Spirit, you might “go and sin no more”. Amen.