Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
If you’ve been attending church for most of your life, you’ve probably heard a sermon or two about this very passage. The ones that I remember focused on the little details that John includes in the narrative: what was Jesus writing in the dirt? (One pastor theorized that he was writing the sins of the scribes and Pharisees.) Why was only the woman brought to Jesus when adultery is one of those sins that often requires more than one person? I find those questions to be very interesting, but what is the passage really about?
The scribes and Pharisees are attempting to set a trap for Jesus, seeing if he will disobey the law of Moses by attempting to save the woman or following the law and condemning her to death. In other words, they are trying to see if Jesus will submit to the law. Jesus’ response is not to contradict the law, but his answer alludes to a law that is greater than any of the purity laws the Pharisees are citing. Jesus forces the crowd to acknowledge that all of them have sinned, and does not disagree that sin must be condemned, but even he, the only person who could truthfully throw a stone, doesn’t.
We don’t know everything that Jesus did during his ministry on earth, but a quick read through the gospels shows a complete absence of any stone-throwing. Instead, Jesus spent his time eating and drinking and talking with sinners. What right, then, have we to pick up stones now? The Pharisees and scribes were concerned with upholding the law of Moses, and Jesus did not disagree with them. However, as we will read tomorrow, there was a law more important to Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”