John: The Woman Caught in Adultery

John: Condemnation
A Message on John 8:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
July 19, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

John 8:1-11 (NRSV)

…Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

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As we continue our sermon series on the Gospel of John today we will explore an event that only occurs in John: the woman caught in adultery.

None of the synoptic gospels include this story, only John does. And there are scholars that think this story is a late addition to the Gospel of John because it does not appear in some of the earliest manuscripts. But for the purposes of today let’s just assume that it did actually happen and that John witnessed it and wrote about it in his gospel.

John describes a very awkward situation. A woman has been caught in adultery. Not only was she doing something wrong, but according to the scribes and the Pharisees that bring the woman before Jesus, she was caught “in the very act of committing adultery.”

Now it is important to remember the scribes’ and Pharisees’ motivation in bringing the woman to Jesus. They were trying to trap Jesus. They didn’t like Jesus’ teachings because he was calling them out for their hypocrisy. They were saying they were following the laws of Moses, but they were all about the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.

So when they bring this woman to Jesus it wasn’t really about the woman and what she had done. The thing was not the thing. They wanted Jesus to say something or do something that would provide them with evidence that they could use to kill him (or have him killed). They wanted to kill Jesus, but being the good, law-abiding religious people they were, they wanted a good reason to kill him so that they would still look good by not disobeying the law.

To quote the character Mongo from the movie “Blazing Saddles,” “Mongo just pawn in game of life.” The woman caught in adultery is a pawn in their game of scheming and entrapment. Their end game is much bigger: killing Jesus.

That isn’t to say that what the woman has done is just a minor infraction of the law. We may not think it’s that big of a deal today because in Texas adultery is not a crime. (I did some research and found out that 21 states still consider adultery a misdemeanor, while six states still consider it a felony. But in Texas, it is not a crime.)

At the time of Jesus (and prior to that all the way back to Moses) adultery had a much stiffer penalty. If you turn back in your Bibles to Deuteronomy 22:22 you’ll find the punishment for adultery. “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”

As if there is any doubt about that, in Leviticus 20:10 we read, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”

Pretty harsh, right?

Another interesting thing to note is that the scribes and Pharisees prescribe the method of executing the woman: stoning.

Now the law we read about in Leviticus don’t say anything about stoning being the method of death, but Deuteronomy does list it as the punishment in Deuteronomy 22:23-24, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

We don’t know the specifics of the situation the scribes and Pharisees bring before Jesus, but the punishment suggested indicates that it might be one like Deuteronomy 22:23.

It’s important to note the location of where this interaction between the religious leaders and Jesus takes place. Jesus is at the temple, the location where the Jews believe that God resided on earth. It was the site of sacrifices and worship as well as religious teaching, which is what Jesus was doing before the religious leaders interrupted him.

The temple was an important place. It was not only the religious center of the world for the Jewish people, but also was an important center of culture, commerce, and civil life (with the exception of the occupying Roman rulers, of course.) It was where people gathered to discuss things, to philosophize, to “see and be seen.”

Knowing this, think of just how humiliating this would have been for the woman caught in adultery. We are not given any hints as to how she was dressed (or undressed, as the case might have been), but to be marched to a public place and made to stand in front of a group of people and accused of adultery had to be a difficult thing for her emotionally. The only modern equivalent I can think of is if someone’s adultery is shared on Facebook. Twitter, and other social media platforms.

So this woman, humiliated and shamed, stands before everyone, including Jesus. But Jesus does something interesting. He bends down and starts writing on the ground.

Now we don’t know what he wrote. John’s gospel does not record that. Scholars throughout the year have speculated and there are some interesting theories, but again, it’s all guess work. We just don’t know. And I think that is on purpose. I believe he knelt down and wrote on the ground not to put a prophetic message in the dirt, but for another reason: so that he would not be looking at the woman.

If you think about it, much of the shame and embarrassment and humiliation the woman was experiencing was the result of everyone looking at her, knowing what she had done. But Jesus doesn’t. By writing on the ground he averts his gaze from the woman to the ground, in effect refusing to participate in her public shaming.

Then, only when everyone is gone, he stands and looks at her face. He refuses to participate in her public shaming even with his nonverbal communication.

Now let’s talk about condemnation. The Greek word used in the scripture we read today is katakrinō. It is more like a legal term, meaning “to give judgement against,” and “to judge worthy of punishment.”

We still use the word condemn in judicial and punishment terms. We use phrases like, “He was condemned to life in prison.” Or “He was condemned to death.”

Another way we use the word is to describe a house or building that is in such horrible condition that it is not safe for people to be in it. We say, “They finally condemned that old building,” or “They condemned that dilapidated house.”

“Condemnation” or to “condemn” are not happy, uplifting words. If you are on the receiving end of them they don’t make you feel good.

As humans, part of our human nature is to condemn. If you don’t believe me just watch the news. In the US the two major political parties condemn each other regularly. Special interest groups condemn the people that think differently than them. And with social media today anyone who posts something that isn’t politically correct is condemned. People no longer politely disagree with each other, they yell… or worse.

Pam’s dad used to have chickens. I remember him buying some young chickens that were all the same age. These were what we called “yard birds” that roamed around in the yard during the day but then were locked up in a chicken coop at night. They all got along great with each other but when these chickens reached a certain age their behavior started changing. If one of them got a spot on their back one of the other chickens would start pecking at it. This, of course, made the spot worse, which meant that the other chickens REALLY started pecking at it. Things got worse and worse until they had literally pecked the chicken to death.

After a while, the pattern repeated itself as the chickens selected another victim and condemned it to death.

Too many times we as humans are like those chickens. Somebody will make a bad choice and it will become publicly known. Then we join in the “pecking” of the victim, both on social media and word of mouth, condemning them for whatever it was that they did.

That’s what the Jewish leaders were doing when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They knew the punishment for adultery was to stone the victim to death. I have no doubt that if Jesus had responded with, “Yep. That’s what the law says,” that they would start collecting rocks and wouldn’t have batted an eye as this woman was stoned to death.

The Pharisees and scribes noticed a weakness on a fellow chicken: the woman caught in adultery. They started pecking at her, detaining her, dragging her out in public, and forcing her to appear in the Temple. And if it weren’t for Jesus, they would have pecked her until she died.

Now it’s interesting the note that the man is never mentioned. It takes two to tango, and two to commit adultery. So where was the man? Why wasn’t he dragged in front of Jesus like the woman?

I sometimes wonder if the Pharisees and scribes didn’t set the whole thing up. I was feeling kinda bad for thinking that until I heard someone else say something about it. I was driving on Thursday and tuned in to “The Well,” the new Christian teaching station out of Tyler on 94.3 & 95.3 FM.

I tuned in and on the air was a pastor named Paul Shepherd, in California. He started talking about this scripture and pointed out that the Pharisees “caught her in the act, which means they were looking for it. That begs the question, ‘What are y’all doing looking at it?’ They stand outside her window. They didn’t even fool with the man. Such hypocrites. They knew they better not roll up on that man, saying ‘We saw you.’ And they little Pharisees, don’t know how to fight. They knew not to run up on that man. He’d bust all of ‘em up. So they waited for him to leave, ran in, grabbed the woman that they caught in the act that they were looking for. Mmm, mmm, mmm. Lord have mercy. Oh, the devil [was] busy [that day].”

While that involves some speculation, it is one theory why we don’t hear about the man. I have another one: what if the Pharisees and scribes paid the man to do it. Or what if it was someone they knew, maybe another Pharisee or scribe? Or what if the woman was a prostitute? What if that was the only way she could keep from starving since there weren’t a lot of jobs for women at the time, and desperate people will do desperate things just to survive. We just don’t know, but we know the religious leaders of the day provided false witnesses against Jesus, so I wouldn’t put it past them.

While we don’t know about the man, we do know they detained the woman. She was brought before Jesus, with the Pharisees and scribes wanting him to condemn her. After all, that’s what the law said, right? And the law is the law. Better start picking up rocks…

But Jesus doesn’t fall for their trap. He knows their hearts and the real motivation behind bringing the woman before them. And he answers in a way that doesn’t violate the letter of the law, but in fact interprets it in a way that makes it even better.

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Brilliant.

The Pharisees and scribes were all about the law. They were the experts on all the religious rules. But they also knew that there multiple times in the Psalms scripture says everyone sins. They had all sinned. Everybody sins. Now they would have considered themselves to be upright, righteous people, better than everybody else, but they knew better than to say they had never sinned.

If you think about it, when we condemn others it’s about power. If I condemn someone I am saying that like the Pharisees and scribes I am somehow better than them. I am more moral, more holy, a better citizen, much more valuable than the person who messed up. I am more powerful than them.

But that’s worldly thinking, not Godly thinking. It’s easy to fall into that kind of worldly thinking. Real easy. But the easy thing is most often not the right thing. The easy thing is rarely the right thing.

The Pharisees and scribes realize that they cannot condemn the woman because they, too, are sinners. Jesus doesn’t condemn the woman, either, even though, being sinless, he certainly could.

Now people are pretty quick to point out this scripture when someone is judging another. And rightfully so. They remember the “neither do I condemn you” part, but they conveniently forget the second statement Jesus makes to the woman: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Or the shortened version, “Go, and sin no more.”

And that is an important distinction to remember. In not condemning the woman Jesus isn’t justifying what she did. He is not saying, “Oh, I don’t want to judge you, so it’s not my place to say whether adultery is right or wrong for you.” No. Sin is still sin, and sin is still wrong. Jesus don’t like sin.

Jesus does not say it’s okay to sin, but he does show that we should be more about compassion than judgement. We should be more compassionate than we are judgemental.

We need to remember that as he was dying on the cross for our sins, for your sins and my sins, he refused to show judgement to the Roman soldiers that were killing him. Instead he showed compassion. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

So my challenge to you this week is to show compassion more than judgement. Be less like the Pharisees and scribes and be more like Jesus.

Don’t be like a chicken and start pecking on others. After all, one day the other chickens may decide to peck on you!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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