Jesus was a controversial figure because of his innovative teaching that was incongruent with that of the scribes and Pharisees. While he was in the Temple for the feast of the Tabernacle, the enemies attempted to trap him by dragging a woman caught in adultery and asking his opinion about stoning her according to the Law of Moses. Jesus could be in trouble regardless of his positive or negative answer. The wise approach of Jesus was to write on the ground something that would incite the thought of the enemies. When the adversaries insisted on his reply, Jesus ordered, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Recognizing their sinful state, they left the place. Jesus let the woman go with the advice, “from now on do not sin anymore.” Thus, Jesus proved that the sinners and the “righteous” are guilty before God and all need conversion of heart. During this season of Great Fast, let us leave behind our self-righteous approach, acknowledge our sins, and clean up our souls with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We should free ourselves from judging others. Like Jesus, let us be compassionate to the weak and sinners aiming for their conversion.
BIBLE TEXT (JOHN 8:1-11 )
A Woman Caught in Adultery
(Jn 8:1) while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. (2) But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. (3) Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. (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. So what do you say?” (6) They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. (7) But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8) Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. (9) And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. (10) Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (11) She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more.”
Jesus came to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles (Dt 16:13-16) which was a feast for seven days of thanksgiving after the harvest. Jesus became a controversial figure among the Jewish elites, and they had conspired to assassinate him (Jn 7:1). So, he came in secret to Jerusalem for the feast and entered the temple area when the feast was half over (Jn 7:14). The Jews were amazed at Jesus’ knowledge of scripture, though he had no formal education (Jn 7:15-18). Jesus justified his healing of the sick on the sabbath claiming that if circumcision was done on the sabbath, he could heal the sick on the sabbath (Jn 7:21-23). Because of their disagreement with Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees attempted to arrest Jesus using Temple guards (Jn 7:32). By the end of the feast, Jesus proclaimed himself as the living water (Jn 7:37). The crowd was disputing on the messiahship of Jesus and were divided on the issue (Jn 7:40-43). Meanwhile, the Jewish authorities continued their allegations against Jesus. By the evening, Jesus moved to the Mount of Olives, where he used to pray and relax.
Teaching About Adultery
(Jn 8:1) while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives is a hill about one mile east of Jerusalem. Zechariah 14:4 mentions it as the place where the Lord would appear to rescue Jerusalem from the enemy nations. Jesus’ last entry to the Temple was from this mountain. Bethphage, “the house of figs,” Bethany, “the house of dates,” and Gethsemane that stands for “the oil-press” were part of the Mount of Olives where olive trees were plenty. Jesus used to go there for prayer, for night rest (Lk 21:37), and to be free from his adversaries and the crowd. The soldiers later arrested Jesus here while he was praying at the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-57).
(2) But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them.
early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area
After communion with his Father and night rest, Jesus came back from the Mount of Olives with regained strength to face the crowd and the enemies again at the Temple premises. He could reach there early in the morning because the Mount of Olives was near the Temple. Though there were attempts to arrest Jesus for his assassination, he was bold enough to return there. He knew his time had not arrived and so the enemies could not arrest him until he let them do so.
all the people started coming to him
Since that was the end of the feast of Tabernacles, people from all over the Holy Land and abroad were already in Jerusalem. They were enthusiastic to meet Jesus as soon as he came to the Temple. Jesus was also passionate about sharing his gospel before his crucifixion.
and he sat down and taught them.
The sitting of Jesus was symbolic of his authoritative teaching because the Rabbis used to teach while sitting. He was bold to do so even in the Temple area where his adversaries were threatening his life, accusing him of misleading the people (Lk 23:2).
(3) Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.
the scribes and the Pharisees
The scribes were specialists in studying, copying, and interpreting the Holy Scripture. They flourished from the time of Babylonian exile to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. Though some of them were priests like Ezra (Ezra 7:5-6), Levites and common people also became scribes. They were also experts in the judicial procedures and served the Sanhedrin. The wise scribes were also titled as Rabbi. The Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They gained authority among the Jews and joined Pharisees in opposing Jesus for his liberal approach to man-made laws.
Pharisee in Hebrew means “separate” or “detach” because this group had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. They were against the Hellenistic influence of the Jewish religion. Besides the laws given through Moses, the Pharisees developed their own interpretations and applications of the Law. They gave importance to the traditional rituals that were not in the Mosaic laws but were handed over by the elders of previous generations claiming that they were also of divine origin. This group originated during the post-exilic times when there was a thirst for maintaining the purity of Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50; 14:1), many of them objected him because he did not strictly stick on to their man-made rituals and traditions. So, along with the scribes, they challenged Jesus.
The Great Sanhedrin, the socio-political and judicial council of the Jews, comprised the scribes and Pharisees. They met in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple. The scribes and Pharisees who brought the adulterous woman must be some members of the Sanhedrin trying to find fault with Jesus.
brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.
Those who dragged the woman claimed that they had enough proof of guilt to sentence her because they caught her in the very act of adultery. She could be sentenced to death according to the Law of Moses to get rid of such evil from the society. “If a man is discovered lying with a woman who is married to another, they both shall die, the man who was lying with the woman as well as the woman. Thus shall you purge the evil from Israel” (Deut 22:22).
The scribes and Pharisees might have purposefully caught a sinful woman to test Jesus. Their target was not the adulterous woman, but Jesus. They were frustrated with him and disappointed that they could not arrest him the day before because of his popular support. They planned to trap Jesus in the crowd’s presence around him. So, they forcefully dragged the woman and made her stand in the middle of Jesus and his listeners. They wished the public to know how Jesus was responding so they could accuse him in their midst, regardless of his positive or negative response.
(4) They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
The scribes and Pharisees respectfully introduced the woman to Jesus, hiding their shrewd intention. Their statement of grabbing the woman in the very act of adultery implied that they already had at least two witnesses as per law to judge her (Deut 19:15).
(5) Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Stoning until death was one of the capital punishments for grave sins like cursing God (Lev 24:10-16), idolatry (Deut 17:2-7), seducing others for idolatry (Deut 13:7-12), giving offspring to Molech (Lev 20:2), breaking the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), stubborn and rebellious son (Deut 21:18-21), and various sex-related sins (Deut 22:13-21, 23-27). The execution was done only after thorough investigation (Deut 17:4) and proper trial before the elders or the Sanhedrin with at least two witnesses (Deut 17:6). They were the first ones to stone the culprit during the execution (Deut 17:7).
There were several attempts to stone Jesus because of his Messianic claim. By the end of his preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, his listeners “rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong” (Lk 4:29). This method also involved throwing stones after the culprit falls down. While teaching in the Temple, the Jews “picked up stones to throw at him” (Jn 8:59). “The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him” (Jn 10:31). Jesus escaped all such attempts because his time had not arrived. Stephen was stoned to death and became the first martyr of the church (Acts 7:54-60).
Though death penalty is prescribed in Lev 21:10 and Deut 22:22 for both men and woman caught in adultery, they do not specify how it should be implemented, except for the engaged virgin caught in adultery. “If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed, and a man comes upon her in the city and lies with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death” (Deut 22:23-24). The betrothed virgin’s violation was more serious an offense and so deserved a painful death. However, the Jews gave the same punishment for all caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus not to judge her, but to get an opinion from him about what to do with the adulterous woman.
(6) They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
They said this to test him
Though the question seemed innocent, the goal of the scribes and Pharisees was to test Jesus. The Jewish elites had tested Jesus several times during his public ministry. The following are some of them:
Thus, besides the test in the desert immediately after the baptism, and at Gethsemane towards the end of his life on earth, Jesus had several tests through his adversaries. He was successful in every attempt. In the Lord’s prayer, he taught us to pray to the Father, “do not subject us to the test, but deliver us from the evil one” (Mt 6:13).
Tests and obstacles can happen in our spiritual journey through our family members, friends, or foes. Jesus’ relatives did not believe in him (Jn 7:5). After the first prediction of Jesus on his passion, death, and resurrection, Simon Peter rebuked him, “‘God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.’ He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do’” (Mt 16:22-23). Such setbacks did not hinder Jesus in accomplishing his mission.
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
The scribes and Pharisees were cunningly using the adulterous woman to find fault with Jesus in public and present him as a false prophet or one against the Roman rule. He had three options:
Jesus bent down
When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery, Jesus was teaching the crowd sitting like other rabbis. So, he could effortlessly stoop down to write on the ground.
began to write on the ground with his finger.
Why did Jesus took a neutral stand, avoiding condemnation of the sinful woman?
Instead of directly answering the question of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. The evangelist does not clarify why Jesus did that and what he wrote.
Why Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger?
The Bible does not give any other instance when Jesus wrote anywhere. However, in the Old Testament, we have the Ten Commandments God inscribed on stone tablets with His finger. “Moses then turned and came down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, front and back. The tablets were made by God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets” (Ex 32:15-16). The same God incarnate wrote on the ground with his finger, reminding the scribes and Pharisees that he was the same God who wrote the commandments on the stone tablets.
Sand or dust could be present on the pavement of the Temple. The stone tablets God inscribed on Mount Sinai were permanent laws. The writings on the sand were temporary but touched the hearts of the opponents. Hence, they left the woman unpunished and did not assault Jesus. The new law Jesus introduced is inscribed on human hearts. God had talked about the Messianic age through Jeremiah, “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31:33).
The writing on the dust from which humans are created might remind Jesus’ onlookers of the transcendence of life in this world. Like the writing on the sand, our life in this world will be erased and forgotten. We have to be kind to others and seek eternal life by being merciful to the sinners.
What did Jesus write on the ground?
The evangelist did not document what Jesus wrote on the ground. Whatever it be, that made the people who came enthusiastically to execute death penalty on the adulterous woman leave in shame. Jesus knew their inner hearts. “The LORD searches all hearts and understands all the mind’s thoughts” (1 Chr 28:9). Using his divine knowledge, Jesus might have written their wrongdoings, which were more serious than that of the adulterous woman.
(7) But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
they continued asking him
The accusers of the adulterous woman became impatient with the response of Jesus. Instead of giving a negative or positive answer to their question, Jesus was writing on the floor. They kept insisting on a verbal response. More than stoning the woman, they were eager to pass judgement on Jesus based on his answer.
he straightened up
Since Jesus was stooping down to write while being seated, he straightened up to look at his adversaries.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus did not deny the seriousness of the sin of adultery. The woman deserved punishment, as Moses prescribed. Jesus knew the moral state of the scribes and Pharisees who brought the adulterous woman. They were also sinners, even worse than the adulterous woman. So, the implied questions in Jesus’ command were: “Don’t you commit adultery?” “Were some of you partners in her sin?” “How virtuous are you to judge her?”
According to Moses, “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised to put the person to death, and afterward the hands of all the people” (Deut 17:7). Jesus changed this by demanding anyone who is without the same sin to throw the first stone on the woman. If Jesus had meant one with no sin, that would abolish judiciary system because all people, including judges, commit sin (Rom 3:23). Those who found fault with the sinner were sinful themselves. Probably some of them might have sinned with her and so brought her to Jesus with no accomplice. Jesus knew their immoralities and asked them to judge their own spiritual status before stoning the accused woman.
(8) Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
Jesus did not expect an instant action from them because he raised a heart-probing demand. He allowed them time to examine their conscience. Some manuscripts add, saying, “he wrote on the ground the sins of each of them.”
(9) And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.
And in response, they went away one by one
The Jews who came to trap Jesus and execute the woman for adultery found themselves as sinners. They acknowledged their weakness nonverbally by leaving the place, probably dropping the stones they brought with them to stone the woman. One by one shows theirs were individual decisions to disclose their unworthiness to punish the woman.
beginning with the elders.
The younger ones among the Jews might have been waiting for the reaction of the elders. The seniors became role models to youngsters to admit their sinful status. Because of their prolonged life, their serious sins haunted their mind, and so they quit the place without saying a word. The youngsters followed the same path.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
The accusers found themselves unworthy to stone the woman. They were frightened whether Jesus might reveal their secret sins in public if they dare to stone the woman. The onlookers and the disciples might have been watching this incident nearby. The woman might have been scared to death when Jesus judged her to be stoned on condition that those who did not sin should stone her first. She might have been expecting the punishment from the Jews at that moment. If anyone was eligible to stone her, it was only Jesus because he was the God incarnate, free from original and actual sins. Instead, he freed her from punishment and gave her a second chance. Jesus helped the self-righteous Jews to assess their souls and find how immoral they were, compared to the woman they caught in adultery.
(10) Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her
Jesus was sitting as part of his teaching and the woman was standing as a culprit. So, he looked up to talk to her. It was like a seated judge and a convict standing in the court facing the magistrate for the verdict.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
When Jesus spoke to the woman with a hemorrhage, he addressed her “daughter” (Mt 9:22; Mk 5:34; Lk 8:48) and to the women of Jerusalem who met him while carrying the cross as “daughters of Jerusalem” (Lk 23:28). However, he did not call this sinful woman “daughter” but “woman.” She was ineligible for it because she did not seek pardon for her sins, and she was unaware of Jesus as the Messiah.
Though all who brought her for stoning to death left, she did not leave to escape. She was mentally prepared to face any punishment because she knew she deserved it. She expected that from Jesus, who might do it with his disciples or the onlookers there.
Jesus’ questions, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” do not imply that she was innocent. However, such dialogue with Jesus was consoling to her.
(11) She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more.”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
The woman did not know Jesus as the Messiah. So, she addressed him “sir” and did not ask for the forgiveness for her sins. If she had known who Jesus was, she might have done so. She did not justify her wrongdoing. Though she limited her answer in minimum words, her body language was expressive of what she had in mind, such as embarrassment in her being caught in adultery, apologetic for her sins, and seeking mercy from God.
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Even though the woman did not plead to free her, Jesus was still compassionate to her. He did not forgive her sins, but avoided condemning her and gave her a chance to improve her life.
Why did Jesus not condemn the adulterous woman?
(a) The lady needs money to meet her basic necessities and find no other way to earn it. This can happen if the husband dies without resources to survive, divorce and no one to support, abandoned by all, a rape or abuse victim, no one willing to marry her, or unskilled for any job. In such cases, she sells her body to survive.
(b) A woman forced to sex work by a poor family, by others who cheat her by offering a job, irresponsible husbands who sells wife for material gains, illegal immigrant with no other source of income, sexual slavery by sex rackets.
In such cases, the society is more guilty than the woman. Jesus, who knew the inner secrets of the woman caught in adultery, found her helplessness and allowed her another chance.
When Hosea presented Israel’s guilt, he preached, “Therefore your daughters prostitute themselves, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters for their prostitution, nor your daughters-in-law for their adultery, Because the men themselves consort with prostitutes, and with temple women they offer sacrifice! Thus a people without understanding comes to ruin” (Hosea 4:13-14). Almost the same was this woman’s situation, and those who abused her.
Here, Jesus proved it is the people who led the woman to poverty and immorality are more guilty. How much is our role in leading others to poverty-based theft and prostitution? What can we do to liberate people from their pathetic situation? The Bible teaches us to share our resources with the poor.
“Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more.”
Jesus also considered adultery as a serious sin because it violates God’s commandment. Whatever justification the woman had for adultery; it is a serious sin. It would damage the woman and her accomplice, their families, and the society. So, Jesus advised the woman not to repeat it. This has resemblance to what he told after curing a sick person who was ill for 38 years. When Jesus found him later in the temple area, he said to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (Jn 5:14). Jesus hated sin but not the sinner. While detesting sin, how are we dealing with the sinners? Are we despising them or helping them to recuperate from their sinful life?
Jesus had a non-judgmental approach towards the adulterous woman and the Jews who dragged her to him. He convinced all of them to reflect on their sinful ways of life. He did not find fault with the Laws of Moses on how to punish the adulterous people and did not justify the sinful woman. He mercifully freed her from punishment on condition that she would change her lifestyle. God is ready to save us from punishment, provided we also change our sinful life. Now is the time for that because if we delay, we might lose the opportunity for renewal before our death.