The end of chapter 7 left the Sanhedrin in a tight spot.

They had tried repeatedly to get Jesus arrested, but the temple guard refused to do it, and even Nicodemus had stood up for him. Jesus was continuing to teach in the temple court, in the treasury by the Court of Women, the most public place in the entire temple complex, as people came streaming in all day to pay their tithes. People were always crowding around this exciting, compelling rabbi, drinking in his words.

So the scribes and Pharisees began plotting traps, and the story found in John 7:53-8:11 was the first among many.

Yesterday’s post imagined the scene.

Assuming this story was meant to go here, in this gospel, and in this part of the gospel, then we can surmise that it is still around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Jesus is sitting on a marble bench, teaching the crowds around him, while the giant menorahs in the background light up the golden walls of the temple. In come some Pharisees and scribes dragging along a tousled young woman, who is crying. They pull her through the crowd until they are standing right in front of Jesus, and announce, with exaggerated tones of unctuous righteousness,

Teacher, this woman has been caught obviously committing adultery. And in the law of Moses to us [is] commanded women such as this to stone.

Therefore, what do you say?

Scribes and Pharisees, John 8:4-5

There are two passages they were most likely referring to:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.

Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)

Both the man and the woman are to be put to death.

In Jesus’ day the method of execution for adultery was actually strangulation. But

If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 

you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death,

the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.

So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 22:23-24 (NRSV)

So, was the woman brought before Jesus married? Or was she like the young virgin above, (perhaps even thirteen years old) described in Deuteronomy?

And where was the man? 

The law required that both be put to death, and the Pharisees claimed she had been caught “in flagrante.”

Had the man been in on the plot?

In Jesus’ day it was not uncommon for rabbis to go from town to town to teach. In each town the rabbi would find a woman that pleased him, and he would marry her. When he was ready to leave that town he would divorce her, and marry another woman in the next town. It may have looked legal, but Jesus had already pronounced such practices as adultery. Most likely, the Pharisees would have agreed. Was it something like that?

The trap should have been airtight.

  • They were banking on Jesus losing the people’s sympathy if he tried to uphold this unpopular and seldom enforced law.

Even Joseph, a righteous man, thirty years before, had planned on quietly releasing Mary from their betrothal, rather than have her stoned. And in any case, because of the Roman occupation, the Jews were not allowed to exact the death penalty (even though they did, pretty routinely, “for religious purposes”), so Jesus might even have gone to prison.

  • On the other hand, if Jesus did not uphold the law, they could expose him as a fraud who did not keep God’s word.

Weirdly, as Jesus was sitting there, he bent down and began to write on the ground while they kept pressing him to make a judgment.

Nobody knows what Jesus wrote.

Finally, Jesus stood up and said, “You are right”

The one of you all who is without sin let that one be first to throw a stone at her.  

Jesus, John 8:7 (NRSV)

Then he bent down to write some more things on the ground.

Some think Jesus wrote a list of everyone present who was an adulterer one way or the other. Others think Jesus started writing down everyone’s sins.

Jesus had read their hearts and knew that it was not God’s law they were concerned about.

They were not concerned about purity or the sanctity of marriage.

They were supposed to be the shepherds of God’s flock, but instead they were eager to kill God’s lambs.

To these religious authorities the woman’s life was expendable, she meant nothing more to them than a tool to trap Jesus with.

What they were really doing was using God’s word to try and trap God.

When do you and I try to trap God that way, making God’s word say what we would like it to say and somehow trapping the Lord into condoning or allowing what we want from God?

Whatever it is Jesus wrote, one by one, the men dropped their stones and silently went away until all her accusers were gone.

Jesus also read the young woman’s heart.

She knew she had sinned and made no excuse for herself.

She did not try to slip away. She owned her guilt before Jesus, acknowledging he was Lord.

Jesus would not condemn her. Instead, Jesuse forgave her on his authority as God. Jesus gives comfort to the guilty. He set her free, free from her accusers, free from the penalty of death because of what she had been caught in, and even free from her guilt.

But it is not as though Jesus did not think what the woman had done was unimportant. He told her what she had been caught in was sin. She was not to engage in it anymore.

Jesus has the power to set people free from sin and death

In a sense, this was the best day of her life.

If she had not been caught, she would not have had this moment alone with the Lord. Yes, it was humiliating, terrifying, devastating.

But Jesus had set her free.

What sin would you and I like to be set free from? How willing are we to confess it to Jesus and have this moment with him? 

On the other hand, look at the scribes and Pharisees. They condoned and rationalized their own sin and at the same time were eager to see sin punished in other people’s lives, even to the death, rather than to see them forgiven and restored.

Who might you and I want to see punished, instead of repent? How willing are we to let that go and pray for Jesus to restore them instead?

[Hand with stones |]

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