They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
This story is a curious one, and one which has been the subject of much debate through the ages. Biblical text critic Daniel Wallace calls this story his “favorite story not found in the Bible” due to its absence from our earliest manuscript traditions for the Gospel of John. Many Bibles today will italicize this story in particular and will note somewhere the story’s absence from early manuscripts. There are many possibilities as to why this story may have found its way into the Gospel tradition, and although they’re worthwhile to explore, they also don’t change the reality of its presence with us today and the impact that the story has had on our understanding of Christ through the ages. Indeed, ask even the unchurched for a biblical story about Jesus and this episode is bound to be one of the most commonly cited.
One of the most common questions surrounding the story is that of Jesus’ aim in writing in the sand. What is He doing? What purpose does this serve? Having read through many an argument, I can say that there are about as many explanations for Jesus’ actions as there are readers of the text. These interpretations vary throughout the history of the Church, too. Some are quite sensible (“Jesus is writing the accusations brought as any legal procedure would have required at this time”) while others allow Jesus to be interpreted quite broadly in His actions (“Jesus is doodling” or “Jesus is essentially acting nonchalant about the case before Him”). In any case, the point remains that Jesus can be understood very broadly and that the actions He exhibits are difficult to grasp in their entirety.
So what can be said about Jesus’ actions in this passage with certainty? Part of the power of the account is in what we can know rather than what’s unclear; Jesus shows mercy over judgment.
Although the accusers do not cite the Law outright, they appear to be referring to two possible passages:
Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Deuteronomy 22:22 – “If a man is discovered lying with a woman who is married to another, they both shall die, the man who was lying with the woman as well as the woman. Thus shall you purge the evil from Israel.”
In both cases, the woman is not the only one who is condemned to death; rather, both of the offending parties are said to be deserving of death. How convenient! This woman was “caught” in adultery, and yet she’s the only one who may find punishment for what took place – when clearly they must know who the other offender was! Apparently the problematic “boys will be boys” mentality was prevalent even in the first century!
How quick we are to identify an offending party, to alienate the one who is easiest to blame, and consider it “justice.” Yet the Lord observes true justice. His desire is for that which is truly fair and right. Let us not acquiesce to those who attempt to appear virtuous and righteous when in reality they simply seek to condemn someone whose sin is more known than their own; rather, let us pursue true justice, and let mercy reign whenever possible.
Merciful Savior, You pour grace and kindness over us even when we are most undeserving. It is in the midst of our sin and shame that You seek to grant redemption and reconciliation. Let me bring my sin to your feet, King of Righteousness and Prince of Peace, that You would heal. Your desire is not sacrifice, but mercy. May I exemplify Christ to those I encounter by showing Your mercy, even when my desire would be to condemn. You alone are the worthy judge. You alone stand able to condemn, and yet You choose mercy. May I do likewise in all things.