Let’s get the story straight…
The woman caught in adultery. This event in the life of Jesus is one of the favorites for anyone who wants to make sure no one who is a Christian is, quote, “judgmental.” You can’t speak against someone else’s behavior as wrong because we all know, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” You know, “Who are you to judge?”
This text has been used for years by some Christians, for instance, who support same sex sexual behavior. It goes something like this.
You think same sex sexual relations are sinful? Who are you to judge? You are a hypocrite. What about people who are greedy? People who are angry? “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
This has always been kind of a logical problem however, because those who recognize same sex sexual relations as sinful are often shamed and called bigoted. But, if you are calling someone a bigot or a homophobe because they think God does not condone same sex sexual relations, then you are casting judgment on them, though you just said you can’t cast judgment.
But, that’s not what this story about anyway. This is a real event in the life of Jesus where he responds to real people in a real situation. This isn’t a parable, not a story told to give eternal guidance for Christians never to call another Christian’s sinful behavior into question. Let’s look at this event in the life of Jesus again and see what is actually going on.
How have you seen Christians be accused of being judgmental?
Caught in a trap?
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them.
It doesn’t appear Jesus is going to back down anytime soon from the threats of those who oppose him. The Pharisees and other religious leaders. They have already sent the Temple guards to do their dirty work and arrest Jesus, but as we learned last week, the guards are amazed by his teaching. They aren’t bringing Jesus in.
So the Pharisees figure we have to do the job ourselves. So, they try to set Jesus up.
As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
The Pharisees are not trying to uphold the biblical law. They are not interested in what this woman did or did not do. All they are interested in is tricking Jesus. John the writer says as much.
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.
How are they trying to trick him?
First, the Roman law is the law of the land. Yes, the Old Testament punishment for adultery is stoning to death, but the Jewish people during the time of Jesus are forbidden to carry out capital punishment. Only the Romans can. This is why later, the Jewish leaders have to bring Jesus to Pilate in order for him to be executed.
Neither the Pharisees nor Jesus could stone the woman. And, besides, according to Roman law, adultery is not a capital crime in the first place. No one is killing the woman.
So, the Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to say she is guilty and advocate her stoning, which would make him a revolutionary to the Romans, or if he says she is not guilty, the crowds will hear Jesus isn’t really faithful to the Old Testament law.
But, we know they aren’t sincere because they aren’t following the proper Old Testament law in the first place.
Second, consider this. How did the Pharisees know this woman is having sexual relations with a man who is not her husband? To accuse someone of breaking the Old Testament law, there has to be two witnesses. Yes, the law does say adultery is punishable by death, but only if there are two witnesses, and then both parties caught in the act have to be brought forward. Where is the man?
Yes, we know this is all about theatrics and trying to get Jesus to say something or do something wrong in front of anyone.
And I love how he doesn’t immediately react. He knows what’s up and he is going to take his time. You aren’t going to rush Jesus.
What is he writing in the dirt? We don’t know. Some say, he is writing the sins the Pharisees have committed in secret, kind of like Jesus is like Santa Claus, “…he knows if you’ve been bad or good…”, but I don’t buy that. We’ll see he isn’t making a comparison. He is just taking his time.
Are there times you have tried to trick someone in order to gain the upper hand?
Caught in a trap!
They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
The Pharisees teach us something interesting here. They are becoming hysterical. Whenever you get hysterical, whether by extreme anger or extreme fear, your brain shuts off the judgment circuitry. You simply can’t be logical when you are hysterical. Brain research is showing this to be impossible.
This is why so-called crimes of passion occur, even with people you would “never expect.” How could they? Were they out of their mind? In a way, yes, they were.
We also see this today when we see extremely angry people protesting. Angry protests make good theater, but they aren’t a means of clearly stating your position on anything. When you are extremely angry you don’t make sense. This is why only non-violent, non-angry protest has a chance of being of influence with other people of good will.
The anger of the Pharisees is too intense to realize their own foolishness. They have fallen into trap. Jesus has he upper hand.
Jesus drops his bombshell.
“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”
Why is that such a devastating invitation?
Think about it. If any of the Pharisees step forward as witnesses, they open themselves to up to questions about how they witnessed an act of adultery, and yet the man involved is not also accused, as demanded by the law. And if they try to carry out the stoning, they will be in violation of Roman law.
Jesus isn’t talking to sincere men who realize their own weakness and sin and so they quietly go away. Jesus isn’t reminding honest believers they are falling short. No, he is talking to evil men whose secret plot is to murder him so they can hold on to their power. This is much more despicable than anything the woman may have done.
What are ways to get your message out without protest?
We’ll be back…
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.
Of course they left. Not because they realize Jesus is right and they are ashamed of trying to trick him. But, because they are covering themselves.
Remember, they are unable to legally stone the woman, and the ones who are the two witnesses, if there really were anyone the first place, these two witnesses are required to throw the first stones according to the law. No one is willing to step forward and act as the witnesses who would throw the first stones as that would be in violation of the Roman law and they would face much worse cross examination.
So, because they got punked by Jesus, instead of the other way around, they slink away. Not because they suddenly realize they have been judgmental and they are ashamed. This isn’t about an honest reflection of sin in their own life. This is leaving in order to figure out another evil plot against Jesus.
Why have people focused on the woman’s adultery rather than the behavior of the Pharisees in this story?
It’s not about tolerance…
Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers?
Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
There we have it. Think about it this way.
Remember the law requires two witnesses.
Where are you accusers?
(Nobody is willing to come forward.)
Not even one?
(Let alone two?)
Neither do I.
(Jesus can’t condemn her either. Whether she is guilty or not, he didn’t witness anything.)
And think about this. The chances she is going to be stoned in the first place, which is contrary to the Roman law, are low or non-existent. In fact, stoning for offenses like this hadn’t been recorded in Jewish historical accounts for centuries, even when Israel was independent. Stoning may be in the law of Moses, but we don’t have good evidence of the people actually doing it!
Besides if stoning had happened, it would have been mob violence, not proper fulfillment of the Old Testament law. The whole thing is a setup by the Pharisees that failed.
OK, so how does this help us understand being judgmental and such today?
Well, first of all, there is no comparison between this story and a Christian calling another Christian’s behavior into question. There is a huge difference between one Christian calling the behavior of another Christian sinful, and threatening them with the death penalty. In fact, this isn’t about one believer’s actions being called into question by a fellow believer anyway, verbally judging her, this is a fellow Jew being threatened to death by other Jews.
And as we have seen, this story isn’t really about the woman’s sinful behavior anyway. It is about the evil acts of the Pharisees and other leaders who are plotting to murder Jesus.
The Pharisees here are not comparable at all to faithful Christians who say some behaviors other Christians accept as blessed from God are not right according to God’s ways. When the Pharisees leave they don’t leave because they realize they are sinful, too, and have no right to judge another Christian’s sin. They leave because they got outwitted by Jesus and caught in their own trap. They realize Jesus knows what they are up to.
And when Jesus says, “Neither do I,” he isn’t being merciful in spite of the law. Jesus didn’t condemn the woman because there were no legal witnesses and because Roman law did not allow capital punishment. This isn’t about “Love trumps everything,” at all. Jesus is not being merciful at the expense of the law. He is following the law to it’s letter.
Obviously, we know what he thinks because he says it.
“Go, and sin no more.”
Jesus isn’t winking at her like, “Of course you slept with another woman’s husband, just don’t do that again.”
No, sin is a big deal. Jesus isn’t saying, “Go ahead and sin, I’ve got your back.”
First, sin is a big deal because sinful behavior always has consequences anyway. There are consequences for us when we go against God’s ways, because our live’s aren’t going to go as God designs.
And second, sin is a big deal, because forgiveness of sin is not tolerance. It’s not like sin doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is saying just the opposite of tolerance.
Sin is working against God’s design, and this will bring death. It is only the forgiveness that Jesus brings that saves us. This is why God’s forgiveness is so radical, in that he chooses to forgive us in spite of what we do. But, our sin has real consequences for Jesus, too. We owe him everything.
As Martin Luther said,
““You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am your sin; you have taken on yourself what you were not and have given me what I was not.”
How can you let Jesus know how much you appreciate what he does for you?