Summary: A look at what the incident of the woman caught in adultery teaches us about public and hidden sin.
They were absolutely right. According to Deut 22:22 she deserved to be sentenced to death and executed for what she had done. We normally comment on the absence of the man in this case – according to the law he was just as guilty and deserving of death as she was – but the fact that he was not arrested (perhaps he had been able to jump out of the window and run away) does not alter the woman’s guilt. She deserved to be punished, with or without the man.
Jesus’ enemies had sprung an excellent trap for him. He would be caught out either way. He would have to break one set of laws. Which one would it be? The law of God or the law of Rome that forbade the Jewish nation to carry out the death penalty. If he said to let her go then he could be discredited in the eyes of the Jewish people for being soft on adultery, if he said to kill her they could report him to Rome. They were killing two birds with one stone. They were dealing with this sinful woman and also discrediting or getting rid of this troublesome preacher.
However Jesus’ response was not what they expected. They had hoped to snare him, to get ammunition in their attempts to discredit or destroy him – instead they snared themselves.
This story shows us the two different ways in which Christ deals with sin and with sinners. Philip Yancey, in his book ‘what’s so amazing about grace?’ comments that this incident illustrates that the world is not divided into righteous and unrighteous people but into sinners who admit that they are sinners and sinners who deny that they are sinners. Some sins are secret and hidden, some sins are confessed. Her then is how Christ deals with these two different situations.
Christ uncovers and confronts secret and hidden sin
Christ’s immediate response to being confronted with this situation was not to legislate or to condemn, one way or the other. Instead he brought himself down. He stooped and he wrote with his finger in the sand. We are not told what he wrote, although many scholars and preachers have suggested that he was writing down the sins of the Pharisees. Whatever it was that he wrote, it showed his unwillingness to become a judge in this situation.
Then came his master stroke – ‘he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ Christ, as the fully divine son of God would certainly have known what was in their hearts – we are told in Psalm 44:21 ‘For he knoweth the secrets of the heart’. He knew that her accusers had many secret sins themselves. They came to Christ and the secrets of their hearts, evil thoughts, pride, selfishness etc were uncovered. They had two options, they could have stayed and faced this mysterious, all-knowing prophet in their guilt, or they could have slipped away, trying to preserve as much respectability and appearance of goodness in the eyes of the public as they could manage, trying to pretend that the whole episode had never happened. They chose the latter.
Just so with us. When we come to Christ and as our Christian lives progress, we become more and more aware of little imperfections in our own lives. That angry thought here, that little bit of dishonesty there. Those things, often unknown to the world at large, that are not quite right in our own lives. When that happens we have two options. We can slip away, mingle with the crowd, try to ignore this divine niggle and to maintain appearances with other people or even convince ourselves that we are really righteous, good people, or we can come to Christ again and face him with our acknowledged sin.
Christ forgives confessed sin
The woman was just as guilty as the Pharisees. But there was a crucial difference. The Pharisees pretended to be pure and holy. They never acknowledged their sinful natures; instead they put on a display of holiness and righteousness. They wanted everyone to think of them as good and religious. That option was not available to the woman. She had been caught red-handed and could not keep it a secret. She could have tried to deny the charge against her, but by her silence she admitted it. Her accusers had slunk off and disappeared, leaving her with the same two options that they had had. Run away and hide or face this mysterious, all-knowing prophet in her guilt. Unlike the Pharisees, she chose to stay. She chose to acknowledge her guilt before Christ. She stood there, probably expecting to be berated and to have the sin of which she was so painfully aware pointed out to her and her humiliation to be even more increased. She stood there in the knowledge that condemnation was what she deserved.