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. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “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.” (verses 9-11)
I love this story. Jesus easily avoids being impaled on the twin horns of two dilemmas – one presented back then by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, and another emerging in our own day. In the process he shows amazing grace.
The passage that contains this story was almost certainly not part of John’s original Gospel. Close study of the earliest manuscripts shows it was added later. Most modern translations indicate this in the text notes. But nonetheless, the story seems to preserve an authentic record of an event from Jesus’ ministry.
The religious leaders spring their dilemma on Jesus, “using this question as a trap” (verse 6). The Romans had mandated that they alone had authority to impose capital punishment, yet Old Testament law prescribed the death penalty for adultery. Significantly, the law applied equally to both offenders, male and female. Right from the start, then, these religious leaders are portrayed in unfavourable light as they humiliate the woman, leaving the man untouched. Nevertheless, Jesus seems to be caught in their trap. If he says, “Stone her,” he runs afoul of Roman law. If he says, “Let her go,” he stands accused of ignoring Scripture.
Once again, his answer is brilliant, and cuts to the heart of the issue for these conniving religious leaders. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (verse 7). They’d put this poor woman on display, despising her for her obvious sin, proudly holding themselves aloof. They’d forgotten that all of us are in the same boat. Jesus’ question abruptly causes them to look in the mirror and take stock. One by one they turn and walk away, convicted of their own sin.
Jesus avoided the dilemma skillfully, yet highlighted truth in the process. He does the same as he looks the woman in the face, avoiding a further dilemma that raises its head in our own day, time and again.
Today, as then, this dilemma often emerges in the area of sexual ethics. People so often head in one of two divergent directions. On the one hand, some hold unwaveringly to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics and speak condemnation and judgement on any violation. The motive is to uphold truth. In the process, grace is diminished. On the other hand, some wipe away condemnation entirely by reinterpreting long-held biblical understanding. They shrink the parameters of sin and seek to eliminate guilt. The motive is to uphold grace. In the process, truth is jettisoned.
Jesus avoids both horns of the dilemma. He extends full grace: “Neither do I condemn you,” speaking immediate relief and hope to the woman’s stained and strained soul. But he upholds truth, not minimizing the reality of her very obvious sin. “Go now and leave your life of sin,” he tells her. He invites her to acknowledge that what was wrong is still wrong, and needs to be left behind.
The basis for this winning balance, on both counts, is the cross. Jesus can extend full, unlimited grace because he himself will purchase it by his sacrificial death. The Apostle Paul will later speak of “the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:8). That’s exactly what Jesus does here for this woman. And secondly, Jesus does not need to minimize the full, dark reality of sin, because he himself will bear the totality of its weight at Golgotha. No need to explain sin away, or reduce its extent, or reinterpret its meaning, or lighten its load. As Paul will later say “he forgave us all our sins” (Colossians 2:13), that little word “all” being big enough to absorb ever incriminating stain.
Therefore, I rejoice in this story. I am so glad it has not been lost. It shows us the brilliance of Jesus. But more so, it shows the wonder of his amazing grace.
Lord Jesus, I stand in awe of your grace. It applies to me. Praise your name.
Reflect: Stand in the woman’s place – receive grace. Stand in Jesus’ place – extend it.
Image: “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons