August 9, 2020

Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery



Early in the morning while Jesus was teaching at the temple, the scribes and Pharisees presented a woman they claimed to have committed adultery. Attempting to trap the Savior, they ask what should happen to the woman. (John 8:1-11). The Master’s response teaches us a powerful lesson of both justice and mercy.

According to the Law of Moses, the act of adultery was punishable by death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10). The death penalty was also prescribed for several other types of sins including persistent disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18–21), breaking the Sabbath day (Exodus 31:14), and blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10–16), among others. Today, the severity of the punishment might seem archaic and overly harsh. However, a better understanding of the law reveals that it actually provided for both justice and mercy in a masterful way unmatched by even our modern legal system.

Before anyone was punished, the accused would be tried before the Jewish leadership where at least two witnesses must testify of the wrongdoing. If the verdict was guilty, the witnesses who accused the person had two options. First, while still being guilty of the crime, the person could be forgiven by the witnesses, thus receiving mercy. Their life is spared. If the witnesses refused to forgive, they were required to cast the first stone. The punishment of death would be required at the hands of the witnesses. They could not just stand by and watch. (Deuteronomy 17:6–7). If the accusation was later discovered to be false, the witnesses could also be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 19:15–21).

The stoning of Stephen by Robert Leinweber
In the Old Testament, mercy was the outcome in almost all instances where the law required capital punishment. For example, King David’s son Absalom was allowed to live even though he had tried to overthrow his own father’s kingdom and take the throne (2 Samuel 14:33). If stoning had been chosen every time a child disobeyed a parent or an Israelite failed to keep the Sabbath day holy, very few, if any, Israelites would have remained. The law, in essence, teaches the severity of disobeying the Lord, while also teaching the importance of being merciful—fulfilling both justice and mercy.

Now let’s focus on the Pharisee’s accusation of this woman. Typically, when adultery occurred, both parties were tried before the Jewish leadership. The woman’s husband would then decide whether to forgive the immoral act or cast the first stone. In this instance, no mention is made of either the man the woman was supposedly with or of her husband. This means one of the following three scenarios are possible: first the woman had committed adultery, second the woman had been raped, or third the woman was actually innocent and thus falsely accused. Whatever the case may be, this woman is not receiving a fair trial according to the law.

In order to trap Jesus, the Pharisees say, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:5). Silently, Jesus bends down and uses his finger to draw on the ground, the same finger who had written the law on the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. This serves as a powerful reminder that he who wrote the law knows best how to interpret the law. In silence, the Master teaches a poignant lesson. He does not accuse the woman nor even ask her to defend herself.

Jesus and the woman taken in adultery by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
The Pharisees continue to press for an answer. Jesus finally stands up and says this powerful statement, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7).

The Master is exposing the Pharisees’ attempt to trick him. In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you think she is guilty and you are innocent, then stand as her accusers and cast the first stone causing her death.” Christ fully understands the true meaning behind the law, and he sees that these wicked Pharisees only seek to use the law to entrap him. In their minds, they could care less about if this woman is guilty or not. Christ again bends down and writes on the ground as the crowd contemplates their decision. One by one they leave. No one is willing to execute the punishment and the woman is left there alone. (See John 8:9–10).

Alone with her Savior who is without sin and could justifiably cast the first stone. He who knows whether she is indeed guilty of this crime. And yet, he does not condemn her.

We often are quick to think of this story, like the title, as the “woman caught in adultery” yet, notice Jesus never actually accuses her of the crime. He simply states, “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11) which could be said to any of us. Though we don’t know if this woman has simply been falsely accused in order to frame Jesus, perhaps the Pharisees, knowing the truth, held an unfair trial to trick Jesus into accusing an innocent person. In the end, we don’t know if she is guilty or not, but it would be wise to follow the example of the Savior and leave judgment to him.

As we read this story, it can be helpful to look for ourselves in the text of these events. Sometimes we might be like the Pharisees—quick to make an accusation or attempt to entrap others. Or maybe we might be like the members of the crowd—embarrassed and withdrawn when we recognize our own sins. Or there may be times when we feel like the woman—alone, unsupported, treated unfairly, and in desperate need of mercy. But among those who stood on the steps of the temple that early morning, no one stands as a greater example than the Savior. If Christ, being without sin, is unwilling to accuse the woman and cast the first stone, should not we, in our sinful state, do likewise? Should not we, like our Savior, lift each other up and offer a hand of mercy?

This will not be the last time these same Pharisees will seek condemnation without a fair trial. Eventually, they will accuse the very One they had previously sought to entrap, even Jesus Christ. Unlike the woman accused of adultery, he will not receive mercy. The Pharisees will chant, “Crucify him!” Christ willingly submits and dies on the cross—innocent of all crimes the Pharisees falsely testified he has committed. He does this so that we, who are sinners, can receive the very same mercy he had deserved. And just like the woman who possibly had been caught in adultery, we too can go free, thanks to the loving sacrifice of our Savior.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

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