One of my favorite stories in the Bible is found in John 8. Do all of you Bible scholars know which one I’m talking about yet?
I’m paraphrasing here, but in the first half of this chapter, the writer is telling us about the religious leaders (Pharisees) of the day who were so frustrated with Jesus’ life and ministry that they conspired against him. Their conspiracy? To catch a woman, who they knew was promiscuous, in the act of adultery. The very act! They would then bring her to Jesus and ask him what they should do with her, a sinner and lawbreaker. They did this because they knew that the law of their land (their religious laws) entitled them to stone such a person to death. Barbaric, right?!
This story is so layered and can be slanted toward different points of view, but I have to start by asking which of these “pious” men just happened to know where this particular woman would be and that she would be in “the act of adultery” in the very moment they needed her to be. What kind of person is privy to another person’s calendar in that way? At best he was a stalker, and at worst and most hypocritical, a client!
Nonetheless, these leaders found her and commenced to literally drag her away from her afternoon delight to bring her in front of Jesus. The day would be a win either way for these men. Either they would get to stone this woman which apparently helped them feel the rush of religious piety, or they would catch Jesus breaking their religious laws thus allowing them to bring charges against him.
Jesus, as is his very character, turned the religious structures they stood firmly upon on their heads. Meek, yet subversive, Jesus proceeded to answer their question of “What do you say we do? Moses’ law says to stone her.” How did he answer? By writing in the sand!
What he wrote is a mystery. I’ve heard many preachers over the years hypothesize about what Jesus might have been writing. I’ll spare you my theories, and instead, challenge you to embrace the mystery in this story as well as the parts that are more apparent. Whatever Jesus wrote had an impact, and he followed it up by telling them that they could in fact stone this woman. After all, it was the law and Jesus is no law breaker. He gave them permission but with one caveat: Let the one without any sin throw the first stone.
The scripture tells us that after telling the mob of men to cast the first stone if they’re without sin, next, Jesus dropped the mic even harder by commencing to write once again in the dirt. He was a straight thug that day! In all seriousness though, after hearing what Jesus had to say, and apparently reading what he had to write, the mob of angry men began dispersing without throwing a single stone. I love that John, in his writing, takes the time to point out to us that they began to leave oldest down to youngest.
Sometimes in our youth, I think we can miss mercy and settle for judgment. As we get older, at least I hope this is the case for me, we are able to recognize the benefits of showing mercy more quickly than we were in our youth.
The last part of this story is what has recently grabbed my attention. This entire interaction you really hear nothing of the woman except the fact that there is one, and that she was caught in sin.
Usually, we tell this story from one of two perspectives: (1) The religious leaders perspective, so we can take that moment to point out how degrading legalism and the law can be. We do this to show that we need mercy, grace, and love. (2) Jesus’ perspective, which allows us to show off the nature and character of Jesus (and God) as he shows mercy and defends this poor woman who is about to be judged so harshly. He was her champion, and he is ours as well.
However, it’s rare that I have conversations about this story from the woman’s perspective, but I think we can all identify with her. Some of us can identify with the “religious” perspective or the “Jesus” perspective because we all have opportunities in our lives to show mercy or withhold it. Relationships, in general, are very good at providing us with ample mercy defining moments.
I think most of us if we’re honest, identify more closely with the woman than with anyone else in this story. I’m not saying we’re all adulterers, but if the shoe fits… What I am saying is that we’ve all been at a place in our lives where relationships, circumstances or both have pinned us down and it feels like we’re about to be stoned. Have you ever felt judged because of your actions? Have you ever felt like you weren’t good enough to receive love or mercy? Have you ever done anything that didn’t deserve forgiveness? I think if we’re honest, we can all find ourselves in one of those questions.
It’s in that moment that Jesus encountered this woman. He had defended her and her accusers were gone but still, she sat in shame. She was obviously worried about what Jesus’ response would be. Of course, we knew it would be radical mercy topped with love because that’s who Jesus is.
I love that John doesn’t offer us much more of the woman’s story except that Jesus told her she was forgiven and then told her to “go and sin no more.” We have no way of knowing if she lived the rest of her life sinless. Judging by my own life, the chances of that are slim. We also don’t know if she left that moment unchanged and went back to her old way of life. Although, and again, judging from my own experiences with Jesus she was changed when she left that encounter.
Just like Jesus’ writing in the sand, we’re left with more mystery. It’s almost as if through John’s writing Jesus is beckoning us to come and receive forgiveness, be free from condemning lifestyles rather it be promiscuity or judgment filled religion. Both are sinful. All the while he is charging us to live blamelessly.
I think more than anything this story challenges me to embrace the mystery that can only be found in Jesus. What if we are that woman? What if we’ve been forgiven so greatly and mercifully? What will we do with it?