There is something inside all human beings that longs for justice. From a very young age, we cry for fairness. We scream and shout if someone else seems to be receiving privileges we are not. We love to watch as people are punished for doing something wrong. We often think that God is just like us.
God does hate sin and love righteousness. God is just and fair. God sets laws and expects people to keep to them.
God is also merciful and loving. Perhaps this is one of the hardest qualities of God for us to understand. We can easily imagine a thunderbolt throwing, raging, ranting, angry God. We find it hard to accept a God who, even in times when we deserve punishment, is ready to offer us mercy and love. It’s even harder when it is we who need to be on the receiving end of this love.
In this portion of Scripture, we see Jesus, fresh from another one-on-one session with His Father, beginning another teaching session. The rabbi is in and, going by verse 2, the people were ready to hear Him. Jesus was popular, charismatic and challenging.
It is in this context that the full motivation behind the Pharisees’ decision becomes clear. Verse 6 tells us clearly that they were trying to trap Jesus. Let’s see how Mr Popular deals with this one, they must have thought. Let’s break up His party with an unsolvable problem. If He condemns this woman to death, everything He has said about love and changing the old ways means nothing. If He lets her live, we can justifiably call Him a lawbreaker and show just how much He disregards God’s teachings. Either way, we win.
In the centre of this, with no power and little choice, lies the woman. How shameful she must have felt. How horrible it must have been to have had your worst sin displayed in public. The Pharisees didn’t give a thought to her value as a human being. She was nothing more than a tool, a disposable in their ongoing games with Jesus.
For this poor woman, who is not even named (perhaps to protect her), the situation is dire indeed. First shame and now, almost certainly, death. We know nothing of how she came to commit adultery or what state she was in when the Pharisees threw in front of Jesus. We hear nothing about the man she sinned with. She is nameless, faceless and, in the eyes of the Pharisees, worthless.
Jesus’ response, as ever, is unexpected. From Him there is no monologue on mercy, there is no speech on the law, no discussion of forgiveness, just silence and a few letters or words in the dust. Theologians still debate what He could have been writing. Was it the Ten Commandments? Was it some other Scripture? Was it a list of sins?
All we know is that He wrote in the dust: the same dust that would soon be kicked and blown around as the crowds left. He wrote words that would be unreadable tomorrow, or even in a few minutes. He carefully and slowly took the time to write something on a surface that was inherently unstable. He took the time to write something that, pretty obviously, the Pharisees and maybe even the crowd, were never going to bother to read. Whatever it was, it was seemingly more important than being rushed into answering the jeering questions of the Pharisees.
“What do you say?” they keep on asking.
Jesus says nothing, at least, not for now.
Eventually, His writing on pause for now, Jesus stands up. The judge is about to pronounce His sentence.
In other words, as Bill Hybels puts it, “you’re obviously going to kill her anyway but at least let’s be orderly about it. All line up in a neat row, with those who have never sinned at the front.”
You see, Jesus never once questioned their legal judgment. That much was already established. The penalty for sin was and is death. There was no fudging the issue. Justice must be done.
It’s tempting now for all writers to put the words “but” and “however.” It is so tempting to see the rest of Jesus response as a contrast to His acknowledgment of the sentence. The more I read this, the more I realise that it isn’t a contrast at all. There are absolutely no contradictions in God. His love is not warring against his justice. His mercy is not at odds with his holiness.
He accepts their legal judgment and adds a condition to it. If you are going to judge sin, He seems to be saying, at least be consistent about it. At least have the courage to see the hypocrisy in condemning others when you stand in condemnation yourself. If you are going to point out the grain of sand in someone’s eye, at least make sure you don’t have a whacking great log in your own.
And so, oldest first, the crowd disperses. Again, writers debate that maybe the older members of the crowd were more open to see their own sins. Who knows? Maybe they are right. One way or another, Jesus appeal to the full extent of justice: complete justice for all, is enough to make them understand their own problems. Suddenly, it is not Jesus in the limelight but them. Suddenly, the focus is on their shortcomings and not the theology of the One who can now return to writing in the dust.
Where there is a clear contrast here is in the end. The same woman who the Pharisees dragged to the front is now left on her own with Jesus. She is again the focus of attention but this time for a very different reason.
“Where did they all go,” asks Jesus. “Is there anyone left who wants to condemn you? Didn’t anyone feel they could stay?”
Through tear-stained, fear marked eyes, she looks around.
“Well, then,” says Jesus. “Since they couldn’t, I won’t. Go and sin no more.”
Let’s get this right. Unlike the crowd, Jesus was free from sin. He had every right to condemn. He had every right to carry out the sentence Himself. He chooses not to. Instead of throwing a stone, He offers forgiveness and, even more importantly, the way out. The answer to her sin was not a stone or a stick but a command.
“Go and sin no more.”
Forgiveness is not only unexpected here but empowering. Jesus does not say, “I forgive you,” at least, not on its own. He pardons her sin and tells her to leave it. True repentance, you see, is not just in receiving forgiveness but in turning the other way. It’s leaving the wrong relationship behind, changing a pattern of thinking, reorganising your time, cleaning out the trash, being stricter on what you watch, being accountable, refusing to go that that website or that shop, moving away.
Here, and in our lives, unexpected forgiveness leads to unexpected freedom. God’s justice and love and mercy and righteousness work together to show us our sin and cleanse us from it. They reveal our need for God and fulfill it. They demonstrate our failings and give us the power to overcome them. This is the God we serve.