Now we’ve gotcha!”
That’s what the Scribes and Pharisees thought when they asked Jesus a hard question.
The scene was the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. A moral lynch mob had burst in on Jesus, carrying a bag of stones and dragging behind them a miserable woman they had allegedly caught committing a serious sin.
“Teacher,” they said. “This woman has been caught in the act of adultery. The law says for us to stone her to death. What do you say?” (John 8:2–10).
No wonder they thought, We’ve gotcha!
How could Jesus safely answer their question? If He said, “Yes, go ahead and kill her,” what would happen to His reputation for grace and forgiving love?
On the other hand, if He said, “No, don’t kill her,” He would be going against what the law required (Leviticus 20:20).
Neither answer would do.
“We’ve gotcha now!”
But they didn’t.
What happened next has become one of the most poignant and powerful stories of grace in the New Testament. Pausing for a moment, Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the one to throw the first stone.”
Another pause, and now their “gotcha” is reversed. He had them. “But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest.”
Jesus said to the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.”
Now I have a question for you: Do you like this story?
“Of course,” you say. “What’s wrong with it?”
It might surprise you to know that many of the earliest New Testament manuscripts don’t even include this story. Only one included it. Two others left blank spaces where it could go, but they intentionally left it out. Later New Testament manuscripts include the story, but they weren’t quite sure where to put it.
Bible editors today still aren’t sure. In the Revised Standard Version it’s in a footnote to John 8. The New English Bible puts it as an addendum at the end of John.
What’s the problem here? What is it about this story that so troubled the earliest compilers of the New Testament?
The answer is simple: Many early Christians were acutely embarrassed by this phenomenal display of God’s grace. St. Augustine, for example, described the story as “dangerous” because it seemed to imply that Jesus didn’t take sin seriously enough.
What about you? Are you comfortable with hanging this portrait of a gracious, forgiving God on the wall of your faith? How does it fit with your views on capital punishment, for example, or abortion?
As we look at this story from different angles and let the light move across it, it becomes richer, deeper. Maybe as we think about this story we can hear Jesus asking four critical questions that are profoundly relevant today.
1 Isn’t human life worth more than rules?
People can fall in love with rules to the point where rules are more important than the people the rules are supposed to serve. The Pharisees were champion rule makers. They invented rules about almost every conceivable situation. Somewhere in the process, however, they forgot that the rules were designed to bring people closer to God, to enable them to live rich, full lives.
Jesus believed in rules too. He believed in rules about the proper use of the Sabbath day, for example. But He was flexible with those rules when human need appeared to conflict with them.
Jesus always operated under the premise that every adulterer, every murderer, every cross-bound thief, was His own child, His own brother or sister, and their lives were more important than any set of rules.
2 Who is righteous enough to judge this woman?
Frequently, Jesus spoke of the peril of quick judgment. “Don’t judge,” He said simply. “It’s too easy to see the speck in your brother’s eye and not notice the log in your own” (Matthew 7:1–5).
“Who of you is without sin, so that he can throw the first stone?” Jesus asked.
Even the most saintly among us have far too many memories to declare themselves qualified here. What a narrow line there is between sainthood and sinfulness, and what experience of grace keeps us on one side or the other!
Adolf Hitler’s greatest ambition as a youngster was to study at the art institute in Vienna. In his late teens, he applied for entrance. But he was turned down. Rejected!
How might the history of this century been changed had the committee approved his application?
What small hinges history turns on! What narrow lines there are between triumph and tragedy, between saints and sinners. There isn’t a single person reading this article who couldn’t in the privacy of their own minds describe in vivid and painful detail a stupid, awful mistake they’ve made in the past—but they got away with it. No one saw. We escape the consequences. Our reputations remain intact. We were luckier than we deserved.
3 Who knows enough about this woman to judge her?
Who are her parents? Is she married? Does she have children? Has something gone wrong in her life? and, incidentally, where is the man involved in all this?
“Why should we know all this?” the accusing faces demand. “Didn’t you hear? She was taken in adultery—” (and here the lips purse, the eyes harden)—“in the very act!”
Jesus doesn’t say it, but He must have wondered: “Whose word are you taking? Surely this whole committee didn’t catch her in the very act! Someone has reported this to you, haven’t they? And you believed them. But you don’t know enough first hand to justify killing this woman!”
The utter audacity of gossip! Do we ever know enough to slander, to condemn another?
Some people go about equipped with their little bags of stones, waiting for a target. Maybe they won’t throw the first stone. But gossip is always a matter of throwing second, third, and fourth stones. And first stones, for that matter, seldom do the killing. The killing is done by the throwers of the second stones, the happy carriers of the story.
“In the act, did you hear? In the very act!”
4 Doesn’t anybody here believe a person can change?
It’s one of the characteristics of Jesus that’s most appealing to me, the part of the picture I like best: His enormous faith in our God-given ability to change, to start over. He believed the lost sheep could be found, the prodigal son would come to himself and return home. He believed Zacchaeus could come down out of his tree, that a woman caught in adultery could begin again, clean and fresh.
But be sure to note that Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes, why are you picking on her? Taken in adultery? What difference does it make? We’re all adults here. What she did doesn’t matter.”
Jesus never even came close to saying that, because He knows it does matter. It mattered then and it does today, too, and all the timid, muted ethics that come out of the secular or religious world don’t alter that.
We’re good at inventing new jargon and arguing that in our enlightened day we are freed from old inhibitions. We have alternate lifestyles. We control our own bodies. We do our own thing. And those indiscretions—all those shoddy little shortcuts in ethics that enable us to do whatever we please—they don’t matter.
But down in the hidden crevices of the heart, when the despair drives us crying among the tombs of guilt, we know it does matter. It matters a great deal.
But people can change. You can change. You can put all this behind you and start over. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.”
In the late nineteenth century, a controversy erupted among educators about a new American invention. For decades, students had used lead pencils in doing their work. But in 1880, a technological breakthrough came. For the first time they began attaching rubber erasers on the ends of pencils.
This had never been done before, and many educators opposed the use of this newfangled pencil on the grounds that it encouraged students to make mistakes. “Let them avoid errors in the first place, and they won’t need an eraser.”
Put more simply, Jesus insisted on having an eraser on the pencil of life. Old errors can be erased, and new beginnings can be made.
That’s our picture of Jesus. Look at it again. A hostile crowd with bags of stones, a miserable woman crying among the tombs of guilt, and Jesus.
- Isn’t her life worth more than a rule?
- Is anyone here sinless enough to condemn her?
- Does anyone here know enough to condemn her?
- Does anyone here believe she can change?
They melt away, and as they do, into the circle of forgiveness and new beginning comes a child of God, brought back by the loving grace of Jesus.