Summary: This message uses the story of the woman taken in adultery to teach us that: (1) whether accuser or accused, we are all sinners, and that (2) all of us can find forgiveness in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
2Early in the morning He came again to the temple. All the people came to Him and He sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They 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. 7When 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.”8And once again He bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11; NRSV)
This text is grounded in the testimony of John about Jesus Christ; chapter 20:30-31 tells us:
30And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: 31But these are written, that ye might believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye might have life, through His name.
This specific situation is an extension of the events recorded in chapter 7. The location is Galilee, the Festival of Booths had just concluded and the chief priests and Pharisees were 'sad you see' because the temple police did not arrest Jesus. Nicodemus publicly defended this non-arrest of his private acquaintance by telling his colleagues that no one could be judged without a hearing.
So the next day, the scribes and Pharisees attempted to put Jesus on trial. They brought a woman before Him. The text does not give her name, but it does state her shame. She was caught in the act of adultery and Jesus was asked to render judgment on what should happen to her. Interestingly, this was a trial within a trial; nested accusations with the expectation of nested judgments; at least one person would be found guilty. Not quite the same as Hamlet’s play within a play, but as in the Merchant of Venice, there was an expectation that either the woman or Jesus would have to sacrifice a pound of flesh.
Now there are three unusual aspects about this situation. First, the law said that when someone was taken in adultery, both the man and the woman were to be punished. Well it seems that if she was ‘caught in the act’ then it would have been pretty easy to have arrested the man as well. Second, since adultery was a criminal offense in the Jewish community, punishable by death, then it is assumed that one would practice extreme discretion to prevent getting caught. You would choose a place that was far from sight and sound. It appears that the religious leaders knew where people went to have affairs; this woman was not caught – she was hunted down by subject matter experts dressed in the robes of righteousness. Third, the required two or three witnesses to confirm an accusation were never identified; this was an accusation that was not explicitly corroborated by witnesses. In short, something is wrong here – this person, who had a private affair, has become a public pawn. The religious leaders were uncommitted to her welfare and committed to destroying Jesus. They were willing to have her executed as a means of discrediting the Christ.
But irresponsible morals, motives and methods notwithstanding, the scribes and Pharisees presented a question to Jesus that would label Him a hypocrite regardless of how He responded. If He says stone her, then He contradicts His message of love. If He drops the charge, then He contradicts the mandates of the law.
Jesus' response was not the one anticipated. The either/or question was answered with a both/and reply. She was declared guilty, and should be stoned only by those whose moral authority exceeded hers. But although found guilty, she was also forgiven and given a chance for redemption.
What did this verdict mean for the accusers? It meant that they were just as guilty as the accused. Jesus helped them to realize that this sinner was being judged by a jury of her peers. Jesus' verdict forced them to see that what they were doing to her in public was just as bad as what she did in private. Their evidence was partial and their judgment was misguided. Yes, this was a patriarchal and patrilineal society, but even these male accusers were not exempt from God’s standard of righteousness. They deserved the fate they claimed she deserved; they were no better than she.