Thought for the day
The rush to judgment—so evident in our public discourse—is matched only by the resistance to forgiveness. Endlessly, we investigate, accuse, judge. As we all know, what is needed eventually is forgiveness—but where do we find it? In the Christian vision we do not have to carry the burden of our guilt forever precisely “because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.” (Rom 3:25 NET) In the current idiom, “we do forgiveness” and so we should!
God, whose name is mercy, we thank you for your gracious compassion to all. We ask that, as we have received, so we may give and forgive. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
John 7:53 [Then each of them went home,
John 8:1 while 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.”]
This well-loved and remembered story has more than one meaning. It is, of course, a story of compassion and forgiveness. It is also a story about Jesus, his person and his authority. His style is instructive: a refusal to engage with the categories of judgment forced upon him.
This narrative is missing from early and important manuscripts of the Fourth Gospel, for example Papyrus 66 and the Codex Sinaiticus. No Greek church father, prior to the twelfth century, comments on it. If you skip from 7:52 to 8:12, the text is seamless. The vocabulary (Mount of Olives, daybreak, teacher) is Lucan rather than Johannine. It seems to be a floating tradition, found elsewhere in the manuscript tradition: Jn 7:36; 7:44; 21:25 and more fittingly in Lk 21:38. It is not, therefore, part of John’s Gospel or theology. Nevertheless, it could very easily be historical. Augustine says people (“enemies of the true faith”) excised the text, lest promiscuity be treated leniently! Although definitely not part of the ancient text, the story is accepted by all churches as canonical.
Kind of writing
Our story is a pronouncement story, an anecdote about Jesus, a chreia, in the form of a synkrisis, a comparison between the scribes and the Pharisees and Jesus himself.
Old Testament background
(i) The general rule
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Lev 20:10)
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. (Deut 22:22)
(ii) However, there was a legal bias slightly in the woman’s favour.
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 neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offence punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbour. Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her. (Deut 22:23–27)
(iii) By law, the witnesses had a leading role in the punishment. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut 17:7)
(iv) There are contrasting texts in the OT: He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. (Ps 103:10–14)
New Testament foreground
(i) Context of admissibility of evidence: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (John 7:51) Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” (John 8:13)
(ii) Context of non-judgment: You judge by human standards; I judge no one. (John 8:15) Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? (John 8:46)
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (Rom 14:10–12)
Verse 53 This is a transition. Who the “each of them” might be is not so clear. The story resembles the synoptic location of disputes with the authorities.
Verse 1 The term “Mount of Olives” is found only here in John. Elsewhere it is frequent: Matt 21:1; 24:3; 26:30; Mark 11:1; 13:3; 14:26; see esp. Luke 21:37; 22:39. The temple does fit in John 7-9.
Verse 2 “Daybreak” occurs only here in John.
Verse 3 “Scribes” are mentioned only here in John. Specifically, the OT was concerned with adultery between men and married women. “Standing in front” is the position of judgement / accusation.
Verses 4-5 “Teacher” is used only here in John. It promotes Jesus as an expert, but it is used to entrap him. Notice the legal irregularities: no witnesses and the woman is alone with no sign of the man. The Mishnah—representing rabbinic tradition—specifies stoning only for the man. Moses is named—but God had dictated the Law to Moses, so Jesus is being invited ultimately to go against not just Moses but God himself.
Verse 6 A frequent motive in the synoptic Gospels. Cf. Mk 3:6. Not speaking is very unlike the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. In the cultural context is signals disengagement and is thus correctly understood by the accusers. As R. E. Brown puts it, “one cannot help but feel that if the matter were of major importance, the content of the writing would have been reported.” St Augustine writes, What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit.
Verse 7 Because they continued to question him, they have correctly grasped Jesus’ refusal to engage. Stoning is based in part on Deut 17:7 above. However, the preceding phrase, “anyone among you who is without sin” is unprecedented. John’s has no ethics except to believe in Jesus and to love.
St Augustine writes: The two were left alone, the wretched woman (miseria) and Mercy (misericordia). But the Lord, having struck them through with that dart of justice deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.”
Verse 8 Resumption of writing indicates that Jesus disengages again.
Verse 9 Have the older ones more sense and less overriding zeal? It may also indicate that even senior members of the community are not without sin.
Verse 10 Thus far the woman has been treated as an object, a pawn in male theological disputes. Jesus treats her as a human being and addresses her respectfully (woman = our “ma’am”).
Verse 11 The case has collapsed and Jesus will not build it up again. The very last line (cf. Jn 5:14) removes any potential suspicion of laxity.
Pointers for prayer
1. Compassion for human frailty combined with a gentle challenge to a better life marked the response of Jesus. From whom have you experienced a compassionate challenge? What was that like for you? To whom have you given such a challenge?
2. The Pharisees and scribes self-righteously condemned the woman until Jesus brought them in touch with their own sinfulness. This was a conversion moment for them and they turned away from their quest for the death of the woman. Have there been times when your awareness of your own fragility and sinfulness has helped you to be less judgemental of others?
3. “What do you say?” can be an embarrassing question. Jesus had the courage to voice an opinion, even though it was against the party line of the day. When you have seen that courage shown – by yourself, or by another? What was the result?
God of power, God of mercy, you bring forth springs in the wasteland and turn despair into hope.
Look not upon the sins of our past, but lift from our hearts the failures that weigh us down, that we may find refreshment and life in Christ, our liberator from sin, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, mighty and strong, for ever and ever. Amen.