Sunday’s Gospel story begins early one morning when a crowd gathers in the temple area to hear Jesus teach. The Feast of Tabernacles has just come to an end, which meant that great crowds would still be in Jerusalem. As Jesus teaches, he is interrupted by a crowd of men surrounding an embarrassed woman.
It is the Scribes and Pharisees who create an ugly scene, bringing a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and demanding that he weigh in on her punishment; “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Their actions should not surprise us. We have already been told in 7:1, that the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus and send officers to arrest him (7:32)—a task the officers refused to carry out because “No man ever spoke like this man!” (7:46).
We should also note, in regard to Sunday’s Gospel, that the Law which called for the execution of a woman caught in adultery also required the execution of the man who was her partner in sin. This story makes no mention of the man. In that patriarchal society, people were more likely to excuse a man than a woman for sexual sin. These Scribes and Pharisees need only this woman for their nefarious purposes; it is really Jesus who is on trial here.
The Scribes and Pharisees have seen him deal mercifully with sinners and hope to show that he has strayed beyond the bounds of the law. Just in case we might miss the point, the narrator makes it clear that these are Jesus’ enemies, and their motive is to entrap him.
Who were these enemies? They were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. That meant they were well educated, well known, and reputed to be men of wisdom and high moral standards. If anyone had a question about the Law of Moses, these were the men who had the answers. But although they were religious, they were not godly, and their intentions are not good. As the story unfolds, we discover they are proud, self-confident, arrogant, ruthless, cunning, clever, calculating, and thoroughly hypocritical.
Why did they expose this woman publicly? There was no need for it. And there was no need to bring her to Jesus. Clearly, they weren’t simply seeking to punish her. Something much more sinister is at work here.
Our Lord saw the woman’s sin and he saw the hypocrisy of her accusers. Compared to them, she looked almost innocent. Their sin was far greater because it was couched in terms of pious religiosity. In the end, there was more hope for this sinful woman than for these conniving Pharisees and Scribes.
Jesus arises from the bent posture he had assumed so that he could write on the ground. What did Jesus write when he stooped twice to write on the ground with his finger? After all speculation is over, we simply don’t know the answer. There are times such as this, when reading Sacred Scripture, that we wish we had a little bit more information. Evidently what Jesus wrote isn’t crucial or we would have been told what it was. The word for “write” is used only here in the New Testament and can mean something like “doodle” or “to make a list”. Some have suggested that Jesus wrote the Ten Commandments to remind the men of their sins. Others opine that he wrote the names of the accusers by the Commandments they had broken: “Sam—Adultery,” “Joe—Murder,” “Jacob—Coveting,” and so on. Perhaps Jesus made reference to a passage in their sacred writings. Scholars have also made a comparison to the “finger” of God writing the Ten Commandments which, in this situation, would have Jesus conveying something like, “I am writing in the dust because I am the true Lawgiver.”
Whatever Jesus wrote, there is no doubt these men were annoyed and troubled. They wanted to talk about the woman; Jesus wanted to talk about them. He did not say, “Let her be stoned” but “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In Jesus’ mind, the issue wasn’t the woman, it was her hypocritical accusers. They wanted to talk about the Law as it related to outward behavior; He wanted to talk to them about the Law as it related to their hearts.
The most offensive sin in this story is not the adultery; it is the malice, arrogance, and ignorance of the Pharisees and Scribes who use the sin of another person for personal gain while ignoring the sin that resides in their own heart.
This account often stirs the inclination to heap criticism on the Pharisees and Scribes but at the same time issues a warning that we not become critical, judgmental, and superior, as we note these traits in them. ‘Don’t look out’, Jesus says, ‘look in’.
We have all sinned. We may have experienced overwhelming shame. And even if the sin is not discovered, our own self-accusatory voice may resound so loudly in our head that it drowns out the gentle voice of Jesus, telling us to begin again. If we do not allow ourselves to be forgiven, how will we ever be able to move out of our self-imposed cages?
The religious men in this story could not help the sinful woman; they could only condemn her. They could not give her a new heart and a new life. They could not set her free from wickedness. They could condemn but they could not save. They could destroy but they could not restore.
This Gospel story tells us about the incredible transformation that can occur when a sinner places oneself at the feet of our Lord Jesus. This is the place where followers of Christ have been and need to go often. He confronts our sin with love and mercy and offers the opportunity for a renewed life.
“Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”