Caught in the act (part 3)

woman-caught-in-adulteryAs we saw in earlier posts, the scribes and Pharisees were trying to set Jesus up for a fall. A woman was framed as an adulteress and dragged before him as he sat teaching in the temple courts. They addressed him respectfully as “Teacher,” and then tried to spring their trap: “Moses said we have to stone her. What do you say?”

Would he condemn her, and then stand by and watch them stone her to death? Would he forgive her, and so discard the requirements of the Law?

Neither. Jesus did something no one anticipated. He bent down, and started writing on the ground with his finger.

As you might imagine, much ink (toner?) has been spilled over what Jesus might have written. The speculations are interesting, but inconclusive. We simply will never know.

But it must have been maddening to his opponents. They pressed harder, demanding an answer, waiting for their trap to spring shut.

Jesus had a trap of his own. Standing up, he replied, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NRSV). Then he stooped down again and went back to his mysterious writing.

They didn’t expect that either.

He didn’t excuse her sin. He didn’t contravene Moses. He didn’t say, “Oh, come on fellas, why don’t you cut the woman a little slack?” Instead, he upheld the righteous requirements of the Law. Agreed, he seems to say, adultery is a sin worthy of death. All sin is. So, then…any of you who are so righteous as to be sinless yourselves get the privilege of carrying out the death sentence. Go ahead. Who wants to be first?

Imagine the stunned silence that must have followed. The woman cowering, waiting for the verdict. The crowds holding their breath to see what the scribes and Pharisees will do. The scribes and Pharisees themselves, minds racing, looking for a way out of their unexpected dilemma.

Some interpreters, charitably, imagine Jesus’ opponents as having an attack of conscience. They recognize their own hypocrisy, their complicity in using the disguise of legal righteousness to set up such an unholy situation. The oldest and most experienced among them are the first to realize their error and are thus the first to leave.

But realistically speaking, I think we need to hold this scenario in tension with another and more negative possibility. The eldest are the ones with the most to lose, the ones who would be held responsible. By quick calculation, they realize that Jesus has won this round, and that the smartest thing to do is withdraw. The more junior among them simply follow suit. Who would dare to remain — or for that matter, cast a stone! — after the elders have already left?

The woman is still standing. Jesus is still stooped down, tracing something on the ground, as his opponents skulk away one by one. Eventually, he and the woman are left alone.

Jesus stands. And as we’ll see in the next post, the brief conversation that follows has much to teach us about grace.