John 8:1-11

Questions abound! Questions about law and justice. Questions about Jesus’ authority. Even questions about the origin of this passage, which was added later than the rest of John, perhaps even as late as the 4th c. C.E. But there’s no question that the passage serves the pattern of John’s Jesus bringing life from the face of death.  To let that pattern unfold, we have to imitate Jesus and focus on something larger than the woman’s alleged sin.  Without ignoring the details, we could easily go off the rails unless we ask a few of our own questions.

Why is this story here? It seems significant that whoever added this story put it where they did for a reason.  In the passage just before this one, the chief priests and Pharisees have just questioned the Temple police about why they didn’t arrest Jesus.  Jesus’ wealthy and influential friend, Nicodemus, offered a weak-as-water defense in the form of a rather passive question that went something like, “Surely, our law does not judge a person unless we hear from them first to know what they are doing, does it?” The authorities answer Nicodemus’ question with yet another question and so do not answer him directly, but the reading we just heard seems to answer, “If not the Law, then the system…apparently, yes, it does.”  

There was no question at all about the woman’s “guilt.”  But here is where we have to pay attention because the woman’s guilt or innocence can become a distraction.  The scribes and Pharisees have theological and political questions about Jesus, and so they bring him a “no-win” test.   They present the woman to him with a barbed question: “We have a law and according to that law she should be stoned to death. What do you say?” But wait—if they caught her in adultery, where was the man who is also guilty under Mosaic law? How in the world did they “catch” her unless they were walking around Jerusalem peeking in people’s houses? Clearly, it’s a set-up.  They think they have caught him in a “no-win” situation—they could get him no matter what he did or said. If he chooses stoning the woman according to Mosaic Law, they could condemn him before Pilate because the death penalty was only allowed for the Roman government and not permitted to Jewish authorities. But if he chose to spurn Mosaic Law and set her free, they could readily discredit him with the people.

Instead of either of these, Jesus responded by testing the law; by questioning the system itself.  Jesus used the system to plant the seeds of change such that everyone “wins” and he stops the questioning with one statement: “Let the person among you who is without sin throw the first stone at her.” And when the self-convicted sinners slink away, Jesus and the woman are left alone.  Jesus has only two questions left: “Where did they go? Has no one condemned you?”  He does not ask whether she is actually guilty. He does not ask her to make any promises about the future.  He has no more questions for the woman.  Sandra Schneider, on the other hand, asks a number of questions of this passage:

“Did Jesus thereby undermine the moral authority of the law or only threaten its self-righteous guardians whose own behavior could not withstand his quiet challenge? Was Jesus’ preference for the one who had broken the law rather than the law’s enforcement, was his compassionate gaze into the heart of the frightened, suffering, marginalized woman rather than clinical examination and exposure of her behavior — was all this sign of his own moral weakness, vacillation about doctrine, ambiguity about evil? Or was it the manifestation of the God he called his parent, the God slow to anger and abounding in kindness and compassion even in the face of Israel’s infidelity? Has anyone, down through history, taken Jesus’ behavior in this episode as permission from Jesus to commit adultery?[1]

Jesus ends all the questioning with his final statement: “I don’t condemn you…Go on your way—but from now on, don’t sin anymore.” If we are to adopt the pattern  of Jesus’ life into our own, to seek to bring life from the face of death, we have to imitate Jesus and focus on something larger than sin—to “return again and again to the gospel,” Schneider writes, “so as to pattern our own lives and ministries ever more closely on the life and ministry of Jesus who never encouraged condemnation, marginalization or humiliation of the other, even of someone who seems to be a ‘sinner’,” and I would add that we must remember that we, too, are sinners in need of the same compassion. ” If we can learn to be compassionately present to our beautifully flawed, awesomely imperfect and sinful selves, then and only then can we can be compassionately present to the same sinful others.  That’s the pattern of love. No question.

~ The Rev. John Forman


[1] Sandra Schneider:  “Goal of public humiliation is protection of status quo” National Catholic Reporter

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