And now for a brief expose of John 8: 1-11.
You all know the story, and to me what is so compelling about this story is not so much what it says, but what it means. So consider its meaning, and forgive me as I take some narrative license.
“John 8 New International Version (NIV)
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
People sometimes wonder what Jesus wrote on the ground. Sometimes they speculate that he wrote out the sins of the accusers so that they could see the worst things they had done. Then, being confronted with their own shame, each of them left rather than face public exposure. Some speculate, and some translations report, that the people were moved by guilt for their own sins and thus they went away.
Some people use this passage to illustrate that Jesus cared more about the sinner than the sin. According to Dave Miller, this is just stupid. “The usual interpretation of “neither do I condemn you” is that Jesus was flexible, tolerant, and unwilling to be judgmental toward others or to condemn their sinful actions. Ridiculous! The Bible repudiates such thinking on nearly every page. Jesus was declaring the fact that the woman managed to slip out from under judicial condemnation on the basis of one or more legal technicalities. But, He said (to use modern-day vernacular), “You had better stop it! You were fortunate this time, but you must cease your sinful behavior!”
Of course there is Orson Scott Card’s rather brilliant take on this from his book Speaker for the Dead. You can go and read the excerpt here, but he colorfully reimagines this story in 2 different ways. Ultimately deciding that: “The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis and when they veer too far they die. Only one Rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So of course, we killed him.”
Now what could I add that the theologians and the poets have not already discovered? I can add what this story means to those Christians who grew up wondering why this story doesn’t teach a better lesson.
Jesus was without sin and he knew the law. Although Dr. Miller up there speculates that there are things which the story does not mention, which when taken into account show how legally shrewd Jesus was, the desire to interpret the Bible in order to make a consistent Christian Theology is not my concern. Instead I offer you this an imaginative look into the thought process of Christ.
Jesus turned his face to the ground, he had to hide his rage and disappointment. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced at the young woman. He did not know her, but he had known many just like her. He began to write in the dust at his feet, and the words that began to appear were the words of the law. The words were clear and unflinching, the arches and lines of the letters marking the dust as though they were being carved into stone. Then when he had finished his writing out of the law he stood.
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
He looked down at the ground, at that law that lay etched at his feet.
One of the Pharisees picked up a stone and took a step forward. Jesus looked up into the man’s eyes. Jesus did not speak, but he did stare deeply into those eyes that were twisted up, not with hate, but with a far more dangerous emotion…righteousness. Jesus held his tongue and continued to stare, all the while his mind was screaming for him to speak, for him to be heard.
“They must decide this on their own, they have to learn this lesson the hard way. They must learn that when they take up violence in the name of God it is not God who authorizes them. It is not the words written in stone, on paper, or even on dust. You who would kill, you who believe that the law of God demands punishment and suffering…you have to learn. You must learn that the law is your greatest test, the test of whether or not you will destroy the creations of God for your pride, for your fear, for your arrogance, for your lust, for your hate, or for your pity.
If you kill this woman now, it will not be because the law justifies it. The law justifies nothing at all, the law is empty words given to test your capacity to love and live. When you kill in its name it is YOU who kill, the law does not protect you. The empty words know nothing of life or pain. When you take them up to kill they serve only as a tool, a tool to justify what your heart desires. Death is in your heart, and in your hands, but the empty words do not justify you. If you would murder this woman you must justify yourself.
Come now! Throw the stone! Do it!! Kill her and declare once more that you are God! Declare that you are judge over all!”
The old Pharisee dropped the stone, and looked down at the law inscribed at his feet. He saw the wind swirl and blow the dust across those written words. As the words evaporated so also did his resolve. He hung his head, turned around, and walked slowly away. As he went, and as the law blew away so also the mob disappeared into the morning mists.
Jesus turned his attention to the woman. ““Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
As she walked away, Jesus held back his tears of relief and joy.