From the very beginning of his ministry there was constant and ever deepening tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. His teaching had been refocusing the crowd’s attention from the demands of the law to the primacy of the heart. This shift was diluting their authority over the people. In this scene from John’s gospel we witness Jesus under fire.
It was early morning. Jesus had returned from the Mount of Olives, where he had spent the night, to the temple area. He sat down and began teaching a crowd that was quickly growing around him.
Suddenly, the scribes and the Pharisees descended upon the scene. They pushed their way up to Jesus dragging a woman along with them.
They challenged him to a duel.
“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?”
Leviticus 20:10 states: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Deuteronomy 22:23-24 presents the method of punishment. “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death.”
If Jesus said he agreed with the law he would be contradicting his own teachings calling for compassion and forgiveness. He would also be going against the teachings of the law – the Torah. Lastly, he would be breaking Roman Law which forbade the Jewish leadership from executing anyone.
Jesus acted quite strangely toward them. He did not stand up to confront them. He retained his teaching posture, leaned over, looked at the ground, and began to write on the ground with his finger.
Countless commentators have speculated on this action of Jesus. Was he doodling while he thought of an answer? Was he writing the personal sins of the scribes and Pharisees? Was it an act of dismissiveness? Whatever it was, it pushed them over the edge. They kept repeating the question. Challenging him over and over again. Would he humiliate himself by not answering? Would he contradict the Law of Moses? Would he challenge Roman law? They thought they finally had him.
Jesus finally straightened up again. He was back in his teacher’s posture. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” Jesus gave them an answer from the heart. He recognized the situation. The law was the law. Moses said that she should be stoned to death. Roman law forbad the Jewish leaders from executing her. Without engaging in the duel with them, he turned their aggression against them. Tonguetied and embarrassed they left the scene, one by one. The elders left first – a nod to the wisdom of age and experience.
A beautiful moment followed. He addressed the woman with the title, “Woman.” He addressed his mother in the same way at the wedding in Cana. He will use the same title when, from the cross, he will hand the care of his mother to the apostle John.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Everyone in the crowd heard what Jesus said to her. He didn’t condemn her. By not condemning her he wasn’t condoning her actions. He told her not to sin any more. He told her to change and move on.
His challenge to the scribes and Pharisees wasn’t meant to condemn them either. He turned a spotlight on their souls. He challenged them to look at their own sins. Jesus was telling them and everyone listening an important truth. We’re a community of sinners. When we recognize our sins, we have an opportunity to grow in selfunderstanding and compassion for ourselves and others.
This account invites us to accept Jesus’ challenge to look within ourselves with humility, to acknowledge our personal sinfulness, and to change our direction. We call this change, conversion.