I find the story of the woman caught in adultery, found in John 8, compelling for several different reasons. The most obvious reason that this story is wonderful and challenging is that the woman caught in adultery is forgiven of her sin and sent away free from punishment. I will say more about this in a little bit. But before we get to the woman, it may be helpful to put this story into context. John, the writer of this gospel, says that Jesus was in Jerusalem for the festival of Succoth. It was common for Jews of this time to travel to Jerusalem for the festivals, in order to be close to the Temple, or the presence of God. So, we see that Jesus had come to Jerusalem, and in chapter seven of John, we see that he goes to the Temple and begins to teach.
Jesus is often called rabbi by those who follow him. Because of this we are not so surprised by the fact that Jesus decides to teach when he gets to the Temple. After all, this was a common practice for teachers. The Pharisees who were there do not have a problem with the fact that Jesus is teaching, but rather what he is teaching. In 7:37 Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” The Pharisees had a real problem with this teaching. It seemed like Jesus was using the words of Isaiah 55:1-3 for himself; interpreting what the prophet Isaiah said as coming true through the ministry of Jesus.
As you can imagine, the Pharisees were angry by this. According to those who had been educated as rabbis, it was not acceptable to interpret the Law and the Prophets in this way. You can see how divisive the teaching of Jesus was. In John 7:40-44 the crowd becomes divided on what to think about Jesus, with some saying he is a prophet, and others saying he is a fraud. Even the Temple police want to arrest him, because Jesus is stirring up the crowd and they are afraid the Romans will attack. And the Pharisees are particularly upset with Jesus, because he made those claims about himself, and the feel he misused scripture, all in the Temple, where the Pharisees are used to having all the power. They are also angry because Jesus was allowed to go free, he wasn’t arrested. And so, they make plans to trap Jesus.
That night the Pharisees track down this woman, who is caught in adultery. The Greek phrasing here states that she was literally caught in the act of adultery. It was therefore without a doubt that she was guilty of breaking Israelite law. She had gone against the code that was laid out by God in the Hebrew Bible. That was clear. There were no doubts about her guilt. There was no question about her innocence. This woman was guilty. There was also no doubt about the punishment. The law stated that anyone found in the act of adultery was to be stoned to death. There was no need to take the woman to court; there was no need to give her a trial and bring defenses. She was guilty, and the punishment was death by stoning. Can you imagine her fear? Can you imagine her terror? She had been captured. She had been dragged to the Temple in order to die. There was literally no hope for her. She was, without a doubt, completely doomed to die a terrible death.
The Pharisees bring the woman before Jesus, who has returned to the Temple, despite nearly being arrested there the day before, and present the woman to him. They remind Jesus what the law of Moses says about adultery, and they ask Jesus what he thinks should be done. John shows us that their question is a trap, however. Jesus has two options, and neither of them are good. If he agrees with the Pharisees that the Law of Moses says she is to die, then Jesus is giving permission for the crowd to stone the woman. But the Jews were not permitted to kill anyone (18:31). Therefore, if Jesus chose to uphold the Law of Moses, he would surely get the crowd in trouble with the Roman guards, and perhaps many people would die as a result. The other option presented to Jesus, was to say that the Law of Moses was not to be followed. If he said this, he would save the crowd and the woman, but he would lose his credibility as a teacher of the law, and everyone would discredit him. As one Christian brother said, Jesus had a choice between Moses and Rome, and either way, he would lose.
Up to this point in the story, nothing good has happened to anyone. The Pharisees are angry about the teachings of Jesus. In their bitterness, they have attempted to trap Jesus and discredit him, and they are so ready to do this that they are willing to kill a woman for it. Likewise, Jesus has been questioned in the Temple Court, in the sight of the Jewish crowds and the Roman soldiers, so that his next choice will decide the fate of many people. And finally, the woman caught in adultery’s life hangs in the balance of the next few minutes. She stands accused before the Pharisees, deserving of her punishment, death by stoning. And yet Jesus calls attention to the ground. Jesus, sensing the mounting violence of the crowd, attempts to dissipate the building violence by directing their thoughts elsewhere. He bends over to write something in the dirt, and we don’t know what he wrote. He has tried to shift the conversation to some other object, but the crowd is set on the woman. She has been lost behind her crime, she is no longer a human being but the object of sin. The Pharisees have succeeded in taking away her humanity. Jesus knows that once a person loses their humanity, it is so much easier to beat and to kill them. It is easier to beat a label than a person. It is easier to beat an adulterer than it is to beat a woman with a name.
This is what the Pharisees do in this story. They take away this woman’s identity. They give her a label. And once she is a label, she is so much easier to kill. Look how we refer to her even today. We were not given her name. We call her the Adulterous Woman. She is given this title, so that even today, after she has been forgiven and dead for thousands of years the one thing we remember about her is that she was found in adultery. No wonder the Pharisees strip her of her name and identity.
And so, Jesus responds by focusing all the attention on the first stone. When a crowd is prepared to stone someone, there is no one person that can be blamed for the violence. A violent crowd cannot be arrested and tried for crime, because the crowd shares the responsibility for the violence. For this reason, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees is so powerful. He says that if anyone in the crowd has never sinned, they are to throw the first stone. Jesus calls attention to the individuals in the crowd, and makes them take responsibility for what they are about to do.
It can be said that the first stone is the most decisive because it is the most difficult to throw. This is because it has no model to follow. By focusing on the first stone Jesus emphasizes the responsibility of the one who is to throw it. Once the first stone is thrown the second can come faster, because it has a model to follow. But once the first person drops their stone and walks away, Jesus has set a new model, one of nonviolence. Now the crowds find it easier to follow that model, to drop their own stones, and to walk away. Jesus has broken the chain of violence and spoken new life into this woman. He has done more than forgive her sins, he has restored her humanity in the face of crowds.
This is very good news for the woman. A few minutes before, she was dead in her sin. Her sin had been known by everyone, and the punishment for that sin was certain death. She had no hope of life. Yet when she encounters Jesus, the resurrection and the life, she is raised out of her sin, out of her death, and given a new life. And to be clear, this story does not show that Jesus condones adultery, or takes lightly the sin of the woman. He takes her sin very seriously, even going as far as to acknowledge that what she has done is deserving of death. But while Jesus acknowledges the sin and the Law of Moses, he also removes the punishment, he liberates the woman from her sin and sends her into a new life of forgiveness.
This story is also good news for the crowd. A few minutes before, the crowd was bound up in a violent cycle, where their actions were going to cause death and destruction. And their stoning of the woman would have brought the anger of the Roman guards on them, and their lives were in danger as well. The only result of stoning the woman would have been more violence, and the crowds were bound up in that violence. And yet Jesus, by calling attention to the individuals in the crowd, restores each person’s humanity and identity, and asks them whether or not they have ever sinned and broken the Law of Moses. In doing so, Jesus allows the people to leave the scene without violence, he has liberated them from their destructive ways. Jesus has given life to the crowds as well.
In the story of the adulterous woman Jesus has done more than free the woman from death. He has viewed her sin and freed her from the punishment of that sin. And yet he has also freed the crowds from participating in this violence. They are given the chance to step out of the cycle of violence and to walk away. Jesus has freed everyone in the story, and as a result no stoning takes place. This is good news for everyone involved. This is the gospel of the adulterous woman. So, Jesus comes to us asking us to drop our rocks, to see the woman for who she is, and to let her walk free from our oppression.
This is truly good news. Not only is the adulterous woman forgiven and freed, but the crowd is forgiven and freed. Everyone in the story has been liberated! And now, as a church, we must decide what we are to do. Have you sinned this week? Have you been found in sin this week? There is good news; Jesus has forgiven and freed you. He has sent you away saying, “Go and sin no more!” Praise Jesus.
Have you discovered someone else’s sin this week? Have you discovered something about your neighbor that is not good, or holy, or lovely? Then there is good news also for you. You are freed from stoning that person. Of slandering their name and gossiping and dragging that person through the mud of our words and actions. Jesus has allowed you to drop your stone, and to walk away, freed! “Go, and stone no more!” Praise Jesus.