The sermon topic at our church this past Sunday was the story of the woman caught in adultery. I noticed for the first time that there is grace in unexpected places in this story. Radical freedom. The grace here is not just for the woman condemned to be stoned. But first, let’s find the traps, the prisons that grace explodes, because they are in unexpected places, too…
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery.”
Well, there’s one trap. They caught her committing adultery. People talk a lot about how they might have done this and the fact that, while she couldn’t have committed it alone, she was being punished alone. Definitely a trap, but not the sneakiest one.
“And placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”
Clearly, they are laying a trap here for Jesus. They said it thinking they would test him, trapping him into their net of judgment.
But look closer.
“Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.”
Can you hear it? The catch in their voice? The whimper of pain from deep in their beings, the desire to be freed from their obligation from Moses? They are watching Jesus, the friend of sinners, freeing people right and left from the bonds of their sin, healing them from its consequences. A few verses earlier, he had just spoken about rivers of living water, about quenching deep, soul-sucking thirst. Living water resonated deeply for everyone who heard, and suddenly everyone in the area began to discuss whether he was the long-awaited savior. They felt hope for their thirst. The pharisees—the men who wanted to stone this women caught in adultery—countered with scripture they knew as well as their own names, “This can’t be—he came from the wrong place. Scripture says he was supposed to come from Bethlehem.” It’s too good to be true. They counter with the the only truth they know.
If I have learned anything in my short life, it is that everyone thirsts, deeply, painfully. Longing is our state of being if we can cut away the distractions. The hearts that leapt at hearing Jesus talk about living water. But… is it too good to be true? You’ve seen this sort of denial, in stories if nothing else. The prisoners blinking in the sunshine after years in the dark. Am I really being freed? Am I really being seen? If a prison is all you know, you may run back to it when confronted with freedom.
“Moses commanded us to stone such women.”
If you are God, you commanded us through Moses to judge one another. How, HOW exactly, “prophet”, “SAVIOR”, can we accept that the grace you’ve offered is from the same God who told us to judge? We are doing the job you gave us to do. How do you have the freedom to give grace when you have bound us to our role as judges?
“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”
Think for a moment about the other times God wrote something with his finger in the Bible. There aren’t many. Exodus and Deuteronomy specifically say that God wrote the ten commandments on stone with his finger. Think about these two situations—when Moses received the ten commandments, God was distant, on a hill in a thundering cloud. The Israelites daren’t draw near, the closest thing they got was stone tablets with laws inscribed by the finger of God. They didn’t get the person, the got the writing. Here, Jesus is writing, but no one can see what he wrote, or at least they don’t remember. Every eye is trained on HIM… the PERSON of Christ. The Word made flesh. When God wrote with his finger the first time, all people could see was the Law. This time, all they could see was the Person, the Person who would die to be with them.
“And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.”
ZING! Hoo boy, are we ever happy when the pharisees get their comeuppance here. That cut-to-the-core, take-a-look-at-yourselves-homeboys approach makes so many people want to stand up and cheer. But it occurred to me that they might have actually been relieved not to have to follow through. Sure, it is pharisees who will later successfully kill Jesus over things like this, maybe even some of the same ones who walked away in this story. But consider for a moment, is it possible they were relieved, even just this once? That the oldest went away first, not because they were convicted most by Jesus’ words, but because they were the most tired and ready to be done? Tired of carrying the weight of the law when they only have two hands? Happy to acknowledge their own shortcomings in exchange for a chance not to have to follow through on the awful punishments commanded in the Law, even if it was just once? Imagine a high school principal on vacation, seeing teenagers commit a crime and walking away without saying a word because, for once, he can.
“Judge not lest you be judged” is not a command, it is a statement of fact. To the same degree I cannot offer grace, I cannot accept it. If I commit a wrong, I bear the weight of that one wrong and I can accept forgiveness for just that. But when I start judging, I bring the weight of the sins I’ve judged to the table with me every time I seek grace. Jesus didn’t just free the woman in a trap, he offered an out to the pharisees. The presence of the person, of love incarnate, the Word himself, obliterated the trap of judgment and law enforcement. He gave grace to the woman, but he gave the Pharisees the ability to accept grace by abdicating their role as judges. Radical, explosive grace that swept past and through the woman to her accusers.