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Women in the Life of Jesus: A Guilty Woman

March 25, 2007

John 8:1-11

I would like to invite you to open your Bibles to John 8 as we consider together a remarkable encounter between Jesus and a guilty woman caught in the sin of adultery. I want to point out the note that precedes this passage, a note placed in brackets above the last verse of Chapter 7. It simply says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” What does that mean? This story is not included in the earliest manuscript accounts of John’s gospel. What are we to make of this omission? The theme of John 7-8 is the rising conflict between Jesus and Jewish religious authorities. God had sent Jesus into the world. John 3:16 says, “God loved the world so much that he sent his son.” That is the main message of the gospel of John. This theme disrupted traditional Judaism and upset Jewish authorities. I suppose we could say that Henry Blackaby would identify this as a “crisis of faith.” People had to decide if they would believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Many, of course, did believe; but others refused to believe. Moreover, some determined that they had to kill Jesus. The placement of the story here reflects that conflict.

It seems rather clear that this story is not part of the original Gospel of John. That reality is shocking to some, but I ask you to consider the fact that words appear in this story that are nowhere else in the gospel. The word scribe, for example, appears only here in the Gospel of John. Scribe, however, often appears in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, gospels that give a synopsis of the life of Jesus. Second, the reference to the Mount of Olives in Chapter 8 is the only time it appears in the gospel. The other three Synoptic Gospels refer to the Mount of Olives frequently. Some have said that this encounter between Jesus and the guilty woman sounds as if it should be included in the Synoptics during the temple controversies. Each one of those books includes a section in which Jesus is in controversy with religious leaders while in the temple.

I was talking with a friend this week, a devoted Bible student. He told me that Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor of religion at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, says it does not matter where this story appears in the New Testament. It just needs to have a place. The church regarded this encounter as original and authentic. Though the original gospels might have omitted this story, the church knew it so well that they were determined to find a place for it.

Some ancient manuscripts actually included this story in the Gospel of Luke. It would seem to fit better there. For example, throughout the book of John, Jesus is referred to as “Rabbi” or “Rabonni.” Here however, John refers to Jesus as “Teacher.” We also see a strategy here by the religious leaders to entrap Jesus, something again that is common in the other three gospels but unique only in this place in the Gospel of John. Some commentators include it right where it is in this part of the Gospel of John while others ignore it or include it as a kind of appendix. Luke Timothy Johnson’s concept seems right. It does not matter to me where the story appears or that it was not in the original manuscripts. I believe, as the early church did, that it is an authentic story about Jesus. This story needs a place, and here it is.

The religious leaders in this passage make a valid legal case against this guilty woman. Consider Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” It is important to know that in Judaism, adultery was a serious sin, as were idolatry and murder. Those three sins required capital punishment. We have a legitimate case against this woman with one possible provision. The book of Deuteronomy says that at least two or three people must be witnesses in order to punish a person by capital punishment. The Scripture simply does not supply any information about witnesses, but we have to assume some existed.

Because these religious authorities have a difficult case, they do what they often did. They turn to a rabbi for an answer. The scribes and the Pharisees in this case plan to trap Jesus, which Verse 6 makes clear. They turn to him and ask, “What do you say?” Jesus has two choices, it seems. He can speak a word of pardon and mercy, which was typical of Jesus. The authorities would deem that response as one that overlooks the Law of Moses and even condones the sin of adultery. If, on the other hand, Jesus says, “Put her to death,” they have him trapped in another way. Capital punishment was the prerogative of the Roman Empire. If Jesus gives that response, then he would appear to be usurping the power of Rome. Of course, they could take his response to the Roman authorities and create a case against Jesus. You might ask, “Where is the love in that reply?” If Jesus suggests that second option, his response would be different from what he does so often. He seems to be a friend of those who are sinners. The religious leaders seem to have Jesus trapped, regardless of the manner in which he answers their question.

Jesus reacts to the question in three ways. First, he gives a non-verbal response. He simply stoops down, refusing to establish eye contact with them, and writes in the dirt. So many have asked, “What did Jesus write?” He might have written, “Where is the man who is a part of this sin?” You will notice that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy say that both the man and the woman caught in adultery are to be put to death. In this scene, the man is absent. William Barkley says that Jesus is perhaps writing a list of sins in the dirt. These men can look over his shoulder and see their sins written in the sand. Grady Nutt, a Baptist minister, suggests another possibility: Jesus is taking names and maybe telephone numbers.

What is important here is not what Jesus writes. What is important is that Jesus first turns his glance away from the authorities. Immediately, these Jewish leaders recognize that he is actually telling them, “I am not going to engage in this debate. I am not going to be a part of what you are doing here.” What are they doing? What is their purpose? They are using this woman to trap Jesus. In fact, you might say they are using this woman in the same way that the man who committed adultery with her used her. Jesus does not want people to treat her as an object. She is not de-humanized. This woman is a person of worth, a person they should treat with respect and dignity in spite of her sin.

Consider the truth of the philosophy that says, “The only thing that good people have to do in order for evil to prosper is to remain silent.” The religious leaders, realizing his refusal to engage them in debate, press Jesus, asking, “What do you say?” We see Jesus’ second response, which is now verbal. He stands and establishes eye contact with these men who are holding rocks in their hands, already prepared to put the woman to death. Jesus stands and looks in the eye the men who want to kill two birds – the woman and Jesus – with one stone.

Have you ever thrown rocks? Have you ever skipped a rock across a pond? Is there anything more entertaining than that? I loved to throw rocks when I was a child. I used to wind up and throw rocks at trees. I even tried to hit a squirrel because I heard that Daniel Boone had killed one with a rock. I kept trying though I was never successful. My aim just was not good enough.

Have you ever gotten in trouble for throwing rocks? I did one time. A friend and I were in a parking lot a crew had just paved with heavy gravel perfect for throwing. We saw an old construction sign nearby, already well dented. I assume someone else had been throwing rocks at it. My friend and I tried several times to hit the logo on that sign. Then I reared back and threw a rock that sailed right over the top of my target, over a hill, and into another parking lot below. When we heard the sound of glass breaking, my friend ducked and ran in the opposite direction. I ran down the hill toward the car. I explained to the man and a woman inside, “I threw a rock. I was trying to hit a sign, but I think the rock hit your car. The woman answered, “Yes, you did. You broke this window. You could have hurt us.” This happened back when cars had little triangular windows that served as a vent. I made sure no one was hurt. Then her husband gave a prophetic utterance, one I did not want to hear. He said, “Son, if you can’t hit that sign, you’re never going to be a baseball player.” I had to pay for that window.

Throwing rocks is dangerous. These men were not ready to throw rocks at a sign or a car. These men were ready to throw rocks at a human being.

Jesus’ second response looks beyond reason and the letter of the law. His response speaks to the heart. He was so good at doing that. He holds these men accountable for their own sins, essentially saying, “I want you to take a look at yourself, guys. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is hard to trap a man who makes you look at yourself. Jesus did that, and this is so consistent with other comments he makes like, “Judge not that ye not be judged” (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37). Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s shop. Knowing what it was like to have sawdust in his eye, he uses an Aramaic hyperbole: “How can you worry about a speck of sawdust in another persons’ eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42). The same principle applies here. Look at yourself. Paul words it this way in Galatians 6:1: “If anyone is caught in a sin, let those of you who are spiritual restore that person in a spirit of gentleness, but look to yourselves lest you, too, be tempted.”

The Scripture says something remarkable happened. The most revered – the oldest men, the elders, the most senior, the ones who had lived the longest and probably had the most sin – drop their rocks first and walk away from the woman. One by one, all the men in the group drop their rocks to the ground and leave.

Has anyone ever thrown rocks at you? I am not kidding when I say that people have thrown rocks and bottles at me Gaffney. Sporting events in Gaffney were a dangerous place to be when I was young. I love people from Gaffney. Some of my best friends live there. There is a rock-throwing element in Gaffney. There is a rock-throwing element in Spartanburg. There is a rock-throwing element in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.” There is a rock-throwing element in Baghdad. People are intent on throwing rocks in every place. It hurts having rocks hit you. Having people who are so mad at you that they would like to throw rocks at you but instead hurl words hurts just as badly. You know the little rhyme that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never harm me.” That rhyme is not true. Words do hurt in the courtroom, in the privacy of the home, in church. Words hurled in anger hurt as badly as rocks do.

I spoke last night at USC Upstate at an event to remember the Holocaust. The program was about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rabbi Liebowitz was there. Some people known as Neo-Nazis came to the event. Though I did not see any weapons, they were clearly armed. They wanted to hurt. A rock-throwing element exists everywhere.

Here in this passage from John, we see only two people left standing with each other – a hurt woman and a hurt rabbi. The woman is sinful, and the Messiah is sinless. The woman has been condemned and the Savior came not to condemn the world but that the world through him might receive salvation.

Jesus shows remarkable balance in his third response, directed to this guilty woman. He says, “Woman, does no one condemn you?” “No one,” she answers. “Then neither do I condemn you.” Micah 6:8 mentions Jesus’ remarkable balance: “Do justice.” Jesus knew the law. He knew what justice required. He took sin seriously. He is not dishing out cheap grace. He knows that adultery is serious business, but he balances justice with love and mercy. The way to find that balance, as Micah words it, is by walking humbly with God. For those of us in the church, it means knowing what is right and wrong but having a heart of compassion and mercy, having that sense of humility that John Bradford expressed when he saw a condemned man going to execution for his crimes: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The truth is that “all have sinned and come short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). Jesus responds with forgiveness and mercy. It is the gospel of a second chance. “Let’s see if you can do better this time. We will reserve final judgment. That will come later. Here is a second chance. Go your way and sin no more.”

This is an authentic story about how the Lord Jesus Christ responds to serious sin. It does not matter to me whether this story is in the Gospel of John or in the Gospel of Luke. I am glad the church preserved this story because it needs to be here, in my heart. It needs to be in your heart. We can find ourselves here in this story. We may be those pious, “holier than thou” individuals who have rocks ready to throw at someone who has sinned. Jesus calls us to look at ourselves, our own sin. We see Jesus and want to be like him with that balance of justice and mercy that comes through the life of humility. We are all like this woman. She did not have to die for her sin. Do you know why? Jesus died for her sin. He died for the sins of these men with these rocks. He died for your sins and for mine. From the cross, he spoke the words, “Father, forgive them.” “Mercy there was great, and grace was free; Pardon there was multiplied to me; There my burdened soul found liberty At Calvary.” This woman found that mercy, that grace, that pardon, that liberty.

Have you? Do you know that grace and mercy in your life? It is very expensive, but Jesus purchased it for you. If you have never accepted the grace and the mercy of the Lord Jesus, could I invite you to do so? Step out, come down the aisle, and say, “I need this kind of forgiveness in my life.” It may be that you have another decision to make about your relationship to God. Maybe it includes a decision about church membership. Whatever decision God lays on your heart, we invite you to respond as we to stand together and sing “Jesus Paid It All.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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