Caught in the Very Act! Call the Tabloids!
This passage does not appear in many modern translations of the Bible, or it appears in the footnote which states that most ancient copies of the Scripture we have discovered does not contain it, or contains it with asterisks indicating there were questions about whether it belongs here. In some copies, it shows up at Luke 21. In many ways, the style is very much like Luke. Also, no ancient church father before Augustine who was 350 years after Christ comments on the passage at all. If it were not for the fact that this passage bears all the markings of an authentic story of Jesus, it would probably not have been kept at all.
It must be remembered that the church endured great persecution during its first 300 years. The Scriptures were confiscated when found, and in other cases, the Scriptures had to be hurriedly gathered up as the Christians fled from danger. There is a possibility that some of the pages got mixed up. Whatever happened is a mystery, but I feel this passage is genuine and in many ways fits here. Jesus in the Gospel of John warns about making surface judgments based on appearance. Any in many ways, this passage shows the darkness which was in the Scribes and Pharisees heart. This would fit well in the context of Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world. And earlier we remember that John states that this Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not understand it.
Therefore, I am going to treat this passage where it lies in the Gospel of John.
In last week’s passage, we saw that the people of Israel who were at the Feast of Tabernacles were undecided about Jesus. We also saw that the Jewish leaders who thought that the common people were ignorant and cursed for following Jesus were actually more ignorant than the people they cursed. When Nicodemus pointed out that they were ignorant of the law by condemning the teaching and person of Jesus without giving Jesus opportunity to formally defend Himself against the charges, they got irate and called Nicodemus a Galilean which to them was akin to our “hillbilly” or “redneck”. The mocked Nicodemus who was called “the “Teacher of Israel” by saying that if he only looked, he would see that no prophet arises from Galilee. However, it is the leaders of Israel again who are ignorant. First of all, the prophets Nahum and Jonah came from Galilee, and more importantly, Jesus was not born in Galilee, but Bethlehem.
Exposition of the Text
In this Sunday’s text, the ignorance of the Scribes and Pharisees are even further brought out. This is the first and only time the Scribes are mentioned in this gospel, although they play prominently in the other gospels. There were no printing presses in those days, so every copy of the Scriptures and other books had to be copied by hand, a slow and labor-intensive undertaking. This meant that the Scribes would become very familiar with the text as they meticulously and neatly copied the Scriptures and commentaries. The Pharisees often consulted with them. But it is one thing to know the words of Scripture and another to know the meaning and intent. The Scribes were extremely competent in what God had said (as well as the opinions of men about them), but they were entirely ignorant of the weightier aspect of the heart of the law and God’s purpose in it.
The Scribes and the Pharisees devised a trap to catch Jesus. They waited until a large crowd had gathered around Jesus and let Him begin teaching them. It is not because they cared for this crowd whom they considered to be rabble, but rather they weren’t against stirring them up to attack Jesus. They knew that they had to discredit Jesus with the common people if they hoped to do away with Him. They would have their way, but not here because it wasn’t the right time that was set by the Father. The crowds would have the opportunity to say “Away with Him”, but not now.
The Pharisees had created this dilemma. If Jesus has said to let her go free, they would have accused Jesus of not keeping the Law of Moses, and the Scribes who were with them could have quoted all sorts of Scripture and tradition to back them up. If Jesus said stone her, they could have turned Him over to the Romans who alone had the right to decide death penalty cases and said that Jesus did not obey the Law of the Romans. Also the crowds would have seen Jesus as being harsh. Adultery by men was winked at then as it is now. Notice the man was not brought. Why should women be treated any differently than men?
Jesus basically ignores them and stoops to write in the dirt. But the Pharisees kept pestering him for a decision. Finally, Jesus gets up and tells them that the one who had not sinned must be the first to throw a stone at her. And then he stooped down again.
What did Jesus write? No one really knows. Some think that he wrote the sins of the accusers down by name, thereby bringing their sins out into the open just as they had brought the woman’s. If this is the case, then he was saying in effect: “All right, she is guilty and deserves stoning. But what sentence shall we pass on these your sins?” Jesus knows the very secrets of our hearts, so there is no hiding our sins from God.
Others say that Jesus was just doodling and was therefore showing contempt to those who were asking Him by simply ignoring them.
Another possibility is that Jesus started to write the Ten Commandments which would of course include that of adultery. But there were also the commandments against false witness, against murder, against covetousness, against stealing, and against dishonoring one’s parents. This is not to mention the offenses against God, worshipping other Gods, making graven images, profaning the Sabbath, and taking the name of the Lord in vain. To break any of these commandments was to make one liable to capital punishment. And just Who was writing these commandments with His finger? –why none other than the very One who first wrote them with His finger at Mt. Sinai.
At any rate, all the accusers from the oldest first were put to shame and left. Jesus had found the third choice and escaped their trap. The woman was left alone, free from her accusers before the only person who had the right to cast that first stone. He asked where her accusers were. “Didn’t a single person condemn you?” She replied: “No one, Sir.” So Jesus let her go free with a warning to sin no more. To the lame man in chapter 5, he said something similar adding the threat of a worse thing happening if he continued in sin. I think the same is implied here to the effect “I am going to forgive you, this time. Don’t do it again.”
Application of the Text
We all know that this world we live in is just as sinful as the world of Jesus’ day. And this should make us sick. There are many who put copies of the Ten Commandments on their front yard as a protest against the way the world lives. Many work hard to get the right politicians elected who promise to stop sin and corruption and to get the right justices confirmed. And even so all are dismayed and feel betrayed when their politicians and judges fail to live up to their promises. There is a tendency to become cynical and say “Out with the old crooks, in with the new crooks.” If the Law of Moses could not stop our bent to sinning, then the laws of men and women have no chance at all. This is the approach of the Pharisees, to stop sin by forcing the Law down people’s throats. But it could not even stop the Pharisees themselves from sinning as is evidenced by their all leaving. So this cannot be the right approach for us to take.
What about the other approach to sin, to simply wink at it as though it is unimportant? This is certainly the way the world would like us to take. The world wants to enjoy its sinning. This leads to the decisions like a Canadian court made when they struck down an ordinance against clubs one could go to and swap their wives and engage in every sort of sexual perversion saying that they could see no harm in it. How blind can one be? One only has to look at teenage pregnancy, AIDS, high divorce rates, custody fights, spousal jealousy and violence, and the like to know how ridiculous a decision like that was. But that is just what the world wants. But we can clearly see how deadly sin really is by its long-term effects. It destroys, all in the name of a little pleasure not. Obviously, this approach is even more wrong than the first. We just cannot wink at sin.
Originally, we discussed how the Pharisees and the Scribe had tried to put Jesus in a trap, but now it is us who seem to have been trapped. If neither throwing stones at the problem nor ignoring the problem altogether does not work, where can we go? Where is the exit from this paradox?
Jesus found the way out, and we can to. The answer does not come from us, but rather it comes from God. None of us had a prayer before God. We have sinned and we know it. We can try throwing the book at other sinners, but this does not get us off the hook. Even if others have sinned worse, we too have sinned and are subject to God’s death penalty. Even those who make light of sin, die. They pay the penalty for sin too. For as Paul says: “The wages of sin are death.” Payday comes to all, especially to those who work. This is why our works cannot save us but only condemn us.
We would have nothing to look forward to but death and the eternal miseries of hell. But the quote from Paul does not end here. For when we continue, we hear these blessed words: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus is the way out of the trap. Jesus paid the debt we could not pay. Or as Paul puts it: “Where sin abounded, grace did the more abound.” And this passage is the perfect example of this Divine grace of Jesus. This gets us off the first horn of the dilemma, the horn of the Law.
But does this leave us to disregard sin entirely? “Shall we sin the more that grace may abound?” We must answer like Paul, “God forbid.” Becoming a Christian means to be set free from your sins rather than to be free to sin. The world hates this message. If Jesus had made them free to sin, he would have received a standing ovation at Pilate’s judgment seat rather than “Away with Him! Crucify Him.” How can we who have been so freely forgiven go back to the mire in which we were once ensnared! Jesus clearly states that the one who practices sin as a habit is the slave of sin in chapter 10 of this gospel. We are not free to sin if we have been freed from sin or else we would not have been freed from it in the first place.
The only way out of the trap is in the words of Jesus Himself: “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”