Today’s story is, hands down, my favorite Jesus story. Even people who aren’t connected with the church or with the Bible are somewhat familiar with it—the phrase “throwing the first stone” is in just about everyone’s vocabulary. So, I was very surprised to find that it never appears in the lectionary’s schedule of readings.
I was even more surprised to find that we’re lucky to have it in our Bible at all. If you look up this passage in your own Bible, you may find that it has brackets around it, or a note of explanation attached to it. It turns out that our oldest surviving manuscripts of the gospels don’t include this story. When it does show up sometime in the 3rd century, there’s more uncertainty about where it belongs. Some manuscripts include it in the same location in John’s gospel where we find it today, but others insert it into different places. Some manuscripts don’t include it in John but put it in Luke! This story has only 183 Greek words in it, but there are about eighty variations of it in different manuscripts.
In spite of its rather checkered history, most scholars don’t doubt its authenticity as part of the Jesus tradition—they believe it was a story that circulated for a long time before being written down. But, however it made its way into our Bible, I’m so glad it did, because this story has so much to teach us about Jesus and about ourselves.
Even though this passage is something of an interruption in John’s story line, its placement at the end of the seventh chapter makes sense. It’s a conflict story, and conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment is at the heart of chapters seven and eight. John has been building this climate of conflict for a while. The religious authorities had already been looking for an excuse to kill Jesus, because of his healing on the Sabbath and identifying God as his father. (John calls these authorities “the Jews,” but we have to be careful not to lump all Jews into that group. After all, Jesus and his disciples were Jews, too.) But, in any event, trouble has been brewing, and it intensifies in Chapters 7 and 8.
Earlier, the Pharisees and chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest Jesus, but the police came back empty-handed. They were worried about how the crowds would react if they laid hands on Jesus, but they also sensed that there was something different about Jesus. The plan had been foiled, so the Pharisees cooked up a new plan. If they couldn’t have Jesus arrested, they’d try to trap him. They’d create a no-win situation where Jesus’ own words would prove that he was a phony—a hypocrite.
Jesus had returned to the temple and was teaching all the people who had come to him. The scribes and the Pharisees show up, dragging a woman with them. They shove her in front of everyone, announcing, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Oh, they think they’ve got him now. There’s no way he can answer this question correctly. If Jesus says that they should ignore the law in favor of mercy and grace, then how could he possibly be the Son of the God who gave the law in the first place? But, if he says to follow the law, he’d have to abandon his message of mercy and grace. Either way, he condemns himself as a hypocrite.
The problem for them is that Jesus knows them too well. The Son of God knows the human heart just as God the Father does. The Son of God has searched them and known them. He has discerned their thoughts from far away. He’s acquainted with all their ways. Even before a word is on their tongues, he knows it completely. Even when they think that they can hide under the cover of darkness, the darkness is as light to Jesus. Their scheme, and all the dark motivations behind it, are known to Jesus.
He also knows the law—the law he has come not to abolish but to fulfill. And he knows that these men know the law. The scribes were professional lawyers who could do much of what lawyers do today, but of course the law was they practiced was Jewish law. The Pharisees knew the law, too, but they weren’t professional lawyers. They were men who had committed themselves to following the law to the letter, and not just the written law but all the traditions that had come to be associated with the law. Both scribes and Pharisees were legal experts.
So, they knew, just as Jesus did, that they were telling only half the truth when they shoved that woman in front of everyone and announced their accusation. Here’s what they knew the law actually said, but were conveniently leaving out for their own purpose of trying to entrap Jesus. The death penalty required two or three witnesses to an alleged crime. There must first be a thorough investigation. Then, if the accusation is proven to be true, there was to be something like a sentencing hearing at the city gates. The witnesses themselves must be the first to raise a fist in favor of execution. Then all the people have to do the same. Only then can the execution take place.
They also knew that, in a case of adultery, it wasn’t just the woman who was to be stoned to death. The man was to be stoned to death as well. If the woman had truly been caught in the very act, as they claim, the man would have been there, too. He would have been subject to the same penalties as this forlorn woman, surrounded by a crowd of devious accusers and curious onlookers. But the scribes and Pharisees had “overlooked” this detail.
Finally, false accusations are treated very seriously. If you falsely claimed to be a witness and were found to have falsely testified against someone, you would suffer the penalty of the crime you had falsely testified to. We have no way of knowing whether the woman in this story was guilty or innocent of the crime she was accused of. But, knowing how fast and loose the scribes and Pharisees have been playing with the law so far, I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them, as my Dad used to say.
In fact, I should probably go back and re-read last week’s sermon about not judging people, because I feel pretty judgmental towards this bunch of scribes and Pharisees at this point. How could they use this woman as a mere prop in their scheme, knowing it could get her killed? How could they so misrepresent the law they claim to love and uphold? Who do they think they are? I’m all for calling out these so-called legal experts, these self-described uber-law-followers, and showing them up as the hypocrites they are (and that Jesus surely knows they are).
Fortunately, to paraphrase Father James Martin, there is a Savior, and it’s not me. Jesus takes an entirely different approach to this whole mess. Instead of firing off words of condemnation for these men whom he has caught in hypocrisy, he bends down and starts writing in the dirt.
This part is actually what makes this my favorite Jesus story. When we feel like we’re being put on the spot, we often feel pressured to give an immediate response. When we’re accused of something, we leap to defend ourselves. When we’re asked to make a choice, we feel like we have to decide right away. When we’re asked a question or challenged on an opinion, we feel dumb if we don’t have an answer ready.
But Jesus doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead of firing back at the scribes and the Pharisees, he bends down and starts writing in the dirt. In the process, he gives us a very practical pattern to follow. He gives us permission to take a moment to bend down and write in the dirt when we’re feeling under the gun, rather than shooting from the hip. He gives us the time we need to formulate a more measured, creative, thoughtful response. Considering my reaction to the scribes and Pharisees, I probably need to do some bending-down and dirt-writing right along with Jesus.
Lots of people have spent lots of time trying to figure out what Jesus wrote. Could it have been a list of the names of the accusers and their own particular sins? Maybe it was the Ten Commandments. Maybe it was the part of the law they were intentionally ignoring.
Maybe he was doing what I like to picture him doing: doodling. Maybe he was just buying some time, giving himself a moment to think through his response. Or, maybe he was giving the accusers (and everyone who was listening in) some time to think—time to think about what they were doing, to think about the consequences of their actions, to think about the times they had sinned.
It doesn’t really matter what he wrote, because the act of bending down and writing in the dirt was meaningful in and of itself. In that society, it was understood that when someone did that, it was a signal that they were declining to engage in this conversation. Jesus didn’t need to write anything in particular, because his action alone said that he wasn’t going to fall for what the scribes and Pharisees had cooked up.
They’re not content with that, of course, and they keep badgering him. That’s when he straightens up and says those memorable words: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He’s not playing their game of legal whack-a-mole. He’s taken this trumped-up case to a whole different level. He’s not asking them to judge her sin. He’s making them judge their own. He’s not asking them to produce the required witnesses to the woman’s alleged crime. He’s forcing them to become witnesses to their own.
This is where my judgmental self wants Jesus to say, “Ha! I knew it! All you supposedly righteous law-followers are a bunch of hypocrites” (as they are). But that’s not the Jesus we know. He just bends down again and resumes his writing or doodling, saying in effect that this trial is over.
The crowd melts away, beginning with the older people. Jesus stays in his bent-over position until it’s just him and the woman. Then, he straightens up and says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies. Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
In that conversation, Jesus does what the scribes and Pharisees didn’t do. He treats the woman as a human being—as a peer of her accusers, not merely an object to be used and manipulated, not just a means to their ends. He speaks to her, not about her, just as he spoke to the scribes and Pharisees. He doesn’t address her guilt or innocence on the alleged crime of adultery, but he does know that she is guilty of sin—just like her accusers, just like the people in the crowd, just like us. But, he doesn’t condemn her, any more than he condemned the men caught in hypocrisy.
All alike are sinners who deserve to be condemned. But, instead of a death sentence, Jesus offers life. Instead of condemnation, Jesus offers freedom to the woman, those who had surrounded her, and us: freedom to go and live in a new way. Freedom to walk away from the wrong paths we’ve trodden, the wrong things we’ve valued, the wrong loyalties we’ve attached ourselves to. Jesus didn’t say to the accusers and the crowd the words he spoke to the woman, but when he bent down and wrote in the dirt, his actions spoke just as loudly: “We all know what’s happening here, but I don’t condemn you for it. I’m here not to bring condemnation for your sin but to save you from it. I make it possible for you to go your way. And, as you go, I free you to walk in new ways, to value what is truly precious, to become more authentically faithful to the God of mercy and grace.”
One hundred and eighty-three words that weren’t even included in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels. These words tell the story of the men who were caught in hypocrisy as they used a woman they claimed had been caught in adultery. They give us a pattern to follow when we face challenging situations in our own lives. But, most importantly, they give us a picture of the Savior. Our Savior knows our hearts and our sin, but he doesn’t condemn us. Instead, he gives us a chance to examine ourselves and allows us to go on our way—a new way, his way. His way is the way of forgiveness. It’s the way of mercy and grace. It’s the way of freedom that leads to eternal life. Amen, and amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young