The Woman Caught in Adultery (Part 4): Prodigal Imprints in John 8

The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 serves many fascinating purposes within John’s narrative, and functions as a story about forgiveness. However, the story has often proved to be a challenge to religious readers, and even a bit scandalous. Within the story we have Jesus encountering an adulterous woman, and he just lets her go free, with no punishment for her sin. In fact, he is surprisingly easy on her, his most stern rebuke being, “Go, and sin no more” (8:11). According to Bailey, this text has a difficult history given the cultural context, which may be why the bracketed story cannot be found in the most ancient manuscripts of the gospel. Pious Jewish fathers would not, according to Bailey, want their daughters reading about adulterous women being forgiven.[1] Likewise, the church has a history of struggling with the story as well, trying to “make it easier” by linking Mary Magdalene to the woman, despite the canonical connections.

However, the power of the story, and the forgiveness offered to the woman, is more far reaching than just this short pericope. It is an explosive story where Jesus physically plays out one of his most dangerous and revelatory teachings found in Luke 15. This chapter in the Gospel of Luke records three teachings of Jesus, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost sons. Through these three stories Jesus reveals the heart of God as one who pursues and finds his people, and the two kinds of lostness that people find themselves in. It is a powerful teaching, and the parables serve as a worldview through which to understand the ministry of Jesus. In the eighth chapter of John, however, a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus, and suddenly the stories of Luke 15 manifest themselves in real people and real situations, and we watch as Jesus responds to the scenario exactly as the father of Luke 15 does.

As the author of the Gospel of John records it, the Pharisees, angry at the teachings of Jesus in the Temple during a festival, search out a woman in the night, find her in the act of committing adultery, and devise a plan to use her to trap Jesus in his teachings, hoping to discredit him as a teacher of the law and send him back to Galilee. The woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus and convicted of her sin. We know that she is guilty, that she has spent her inheritance in reckless living (if the charge is to be fully believed). She is a sinner in the eyes of the community, and there is no reason for forgiveness. More so, she is effectively dead in her sin. The law states her punishment clearly, stoning, and she was caught in the act. Therefore, this woman is all be dead, brought as a prize of the law before the Rabbi.

The day before this event, in chapter seven of John, Jesus claims to possess living water, and asks any thirsty crowd member to come and receive life (7:37-39). His claim is that interaction with him is life-giving, just as water gives new life to parched ground. Here, his claim is put to the test. A woman, a sinner, dead in her actions, comes before Jesus, the life, and all eyes are on his next move. The expectation is that the Rabbi, knowing the law, will dispense proper justice, condemn the woman and move along. But this is the exact opposite of what we find.

Instead, she encounters the father from Luke 15, not hell-bent on punishment, but full of reckless forgiveness. Just as the father is Luke 15 receives his wayward son, fully knowing and understanding his sin, so Jesus also welcomes the woman into his presence. He forgives her without any repentance on her part, just as the good father receives his son without repentance. The adulterous woman acknowledges her sin, and Jesus acknowledges her salvation. She stands before him, dead in her sins, and is given life. Jesus’ claim from chapter seven rings true, anyone who comes to him will receive life. This woman was lost and now is found, she was dead and now, behold, she is alive!

This adulterous woman embodies the story of the younger son, and by extension, that of the lost sheep in Luke 15. She was far from the house of the father, unclean and lost in the wilderness. She had no hope of finding her way back to his house. But just as she gave herself over to her lostness, to death, the good shepherd found her, and the good father welcomed her into the house for a celebration feast. The adulterous woman stands as a real-life prodigal son, a signpost pointing to the lavish love and forgiveness of the father, the very life himself.

And if it is true that John 8 is an embodiment of Luke 15 and the story of the prodigal sons, we should be able to look around and discover the older son, lurking out in the field, unwilling to take part in the festival celebration of the lost son’s foundness. Indeed, it is easy to find the older brother in John 8 as well. The group of Pharisees stands watching Jesus, having prepared the perfect trap for him. As older sons that have fastidiously kept the law of God, they are prepared to continue guarding the commands of the father. They are ritually clean, keepers of the law, and perfect in the eyes of the community. Just as the older brother in Luke 15, they have viewed God as a god of laws, a task-master who is only approachable under the purest circumstances. The Pharisees feel justified standing in the presence of Jesus, knowing their place. And we know they scorn the woman, publicly humiliating her and calling for her death.

They certainly watch in horror as the scandal unfolds, as Jesus forgives the woman and gives her life, reconciling her to the heart of God. This woman, who has squandered God’s good law, who deserves death and banishment, is given grace! The Pharisees recoil in the face of such overwhelming love. They cannot grasp Jesus’ actions as he sidesteps their trap. The Pharisees, once again, are the lost older brother, who disobeys God by keeping the law. This older brother, like the lost coin, is lost inside the house of the father, unaware that it is possible to be far from God even inside the Temple. They cannot understand this forgiveness, and therefore refuse to celebrate the life given to the woman. They stand outside the work of the father, unable to bring themselves in to the feast.

But as we know, the father of Luke 15 is not content to go out just for the younger son, but also goes out to the true older son as well. Likewise, Jesus attempts to reconcile his relationship with the Pharisees in John 8. He calls them out of their way of life, seeing only the law and observant only to the purity code. He asks them to see their own brokenness, and to discover their own lostness. His question to them shatters their perfect façade. He tells them that if they are truly perfect, they can condemn the woman. Surely, if they are the law keepers they claim to be, this is an easy requirement to meet. Yet they all hang their heads and leave, knowing deep in their most honest selves that they are as lost as the woman. Jesus pulls down the temple charade and reveals the lostness of the older brother, not to humiliate, but to bring them into reconciliation with the adulterous woman.

In the same way that Jesus offers life to the adulterous woman, we can also see Jesus extending life to the Pharisees as well. Their violent rhetoric has probably already alerted the Roman guards to a potential riot, and their provocation of the crowds has placed everyone in the Temple in a precarious situation. The mob is teetering on the edge of violence, and Rome responds to violence with absolute bloodshed. The Pharisees have, knowingly or unknowingly, jeopardized their lives and the lives of the crowd through their law keeping. Yet they have sprung their trap on Jesus, and have moved past the point of return. They cannot take back their violent rhetoric, and have set in motion a disastrous situation. With an angry mob picking up stones and Roman guards tensely clamoring their weapons, the Pharisees surely pause a moment and realize their plight. If Jesus takes the bait, their lives are forfeit. If he agrees with them that the woman should die, if he gives in to the law, it could spell their death. I’m sure at least one of their number began silently praying that Jesus would abandon the law for mercy and not sentence them to die.

And that is exactly what Jesus does. By not condemning the woman and demanding her life for her sins, he has not just given her life back to her. He has given life back to the Pharisees, and by extension, the crowds. The woman was certainly dead to her sin, and now she is alive. But the same can also be said of the Pharisees, who were dead in their sin of law keeping, dead in their condemnation, but now found alive. Again, Jesus’ claim in chapter seven rings true. Everyone who comes to Jesus receives rivers of living water, life itself. It is true for the younger son, the adulterous woman, and it is also true for the older son, the Pharisees and the crowds.

We know that the good woman searches for her coin in Luke 15, refusing to let it remain lost, just as the father goes out to bring in his older son as well. Likewise, Jesus longs for fellowship with the Pharisees, and strips away the theological games and traps to find them. The references to Luke 15 are almost painfully blatant. The Pharisees stand within the Temple complex, literally inside the house of God, but remain just as lost as the adulterous woman. The difference between the two is that the adulterous woman, like the younger son, passively accepts being found, and is therefore raised to new life. Meanwhile, the Pharisees, much like the older son, choose to remain lost and defiant, clinging to laws and rituals, hoping they will save them, scandalized by the reckless love of the father, the very resurrection and the life.

John 8 stands as a living retelling of Luke 15. In both stories, two kinds of people become lost, one by breaking the law, and one by keeping it. Likewise, in both stories one is lost out in the wilderness, far from the father, while one is lost inside the house of the father. Both are in desperate need of finding. Both are experiencing death and separation, a veritable hell on earth. And in both stories, the good father goes out searching for his lost sons. The good shepherd goes into the wilderness for his lost sheep, the sinners, the adulterous woman. At the same time, the good woman sweeps the house, looking for her precious lost coins, the Pharisees. Jesus calls to both, offering not condemnation, but reconciliation and festive celebrations, the very water of life.

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 230.


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