Neither Do I Condemn You

Jesus forgave the woman accused of adultery, but what happened after?

The mob of holy men had burst into her house while screaming giddy bits of prayer, their words a battle cry. Their sublime yet maniacal expressions of praise to the Most High One were a stunning contrast to the violence of their actions. The men put their hands on her, dragging her like a sack of garbage through the streets of Jerusalem. She cried out and struggled to break free, but no one dared to intervene. Not when they had already declared her guilty. Whether she was or not didn’t seem to matter.

She cried out and struggled to break free, but no one dared to intervene. Not when they had already declared her guilty.

The men pushed through a crowd gathered to hear some preacher with a Galilean accent, holding forth in an outer court of the temple. Then they shoved her into the center of the group before stepping away as if she were a leper. The oldest one, the leader of the group, raised his voice in triumph and spoke to the preacher: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”

Her broken heart re-shattered at the question.

She stole a glance in the Teacher’s direction and saw Him staring at the same ground she’d been staring at, His index finger tracing in the dirt. Didn’t He hear them? Didn’t He fear them? The mob who dragged her there continued to shout their questions, louder and louder, as if He were deaf. Some in the crowd who’d gathered to listen added their voices to the rising din.

When the Teacher finally rose, He stood for a moment without speaking, and the crowd grew silent. At last He spoke, His voice steady: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He stood for a moment, looking this one and that one in the eye, unblinking, before He once again knelt and began tracing something she couldn’t decipher in the dust. He didn’t look up again. After the crowd dispersed, He rose to His feet and met her gaze for a moment. “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”

Maybe she looked down then, feeling completely exposed yet somehow safe. “No one, Lord.”

“I do not condemn you, either,” the Teacher declared. “Go. From now on sin no more.”

A couple of Jesus’ disciples came forward to let Him know that someone had invited their group to a meal. Dazed and unsure what to do next, the woman began following them. Following Him. Jesus turned, shook His head no, and said with gentle kindness, “Go.”

The mob who dragged her there continued to shout their questions, louder and louder, as if He were deaf.

Perhaps she understood that if she were to follow Him, she would have to do so at home, not simply living out the mercy she’d received, but doing so among the community that knew exactly who she was and what her accusers said she’d done.

Jesus had told her to go and sin no more. But He hadn’t explained how she was supposed to live.

Or had He?

Although this account in John 8:1-11 is not included in some early manuscripts, those compiling Scripture into the form we now have in our Bibles decided to leave the story in place, as it is consistent with the ministry of Jesus found throughout all the Gospel accounts.

I am struck by the lack of specific instruction Jesus gave this woman. He didn’t need to hand her a list of dos and don’ts. As a Jewish woman living in Jerusalem, she knew at least the basics about what sin was, since she’d been accused of violating the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14).

Beyond that, she may not have been an expert in the Law, but her accusers certainly were. The Torah prescribed that the death penalty be applied to both the male and female partner caught in the act of adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Further, the Law required that those who witnessed the sin would be the ones to throw the first stones. The word of a single witness was not enough; there needed to be at least two who’d literally uncovered the intimate behavior of an adulterous couple (Deut. 17:6-7). While death by stoning meant a crowd would join in the punishment so no one person could be held responsible for taking someone’s life, the obligation to throw the first stones belonged to the accusers alone.

Jesus had told her to go and sin no more. But He hadn’t explained how she was supposed to live.

In the case of this unnamed woman, none of this mattered to her challengers. Their early morning ambush was a setup, plain and simple. They believed Jesus was playing fast and loose with the Torah by healing on the Sabbath, sharing a table with sinners, and drawing crowds anxious to hear what He had to say. In order to take Him down, these religious experts were happy to sacrifice their obedience to the Law they claimed to cherish.

Professor W. Hall Harris III said of this account, “The scribes and Pharisees must have thought they had Jesus in the classic ‘double bind’ situation—they could get him no matter what he did or said. If he upheld the Law and commanded that the woman be stoned, they could bring accusation before Pilate (since the death penalty was not permitted to the Jewish authorities), and this could be combined with the popular acclamations of him as King. If, on the other hand, he overturned the Law, he would be discredited with the people.”

I’ll confess that my usual reading of this text for years was something like, “Bet you Pharisees didn’t see this answer coming! Oh, and hey, woman, please stop having sexual relations with a man who is not your husband.” It might not surprise you, then, to know that for a long time I battled the notion that maybe my habitual sins might “use up” God’s grace for me. I could hear the voice of my accuser, the enemy of my soul, loud and clear. As a result, I could be Pharisee-tough on myself and sometimes carried unrealistic expectations of others. Maybe I secretly harbored some sympathy for the woman’s accusers, authorities who were very concerned with proper behavior.

 

Author and professor William Barclay noted that a proper use of authority should be bent toward seeking a wrongdoer’s rehabilitation, adding, “Any authority which is solely concerned with punishment is wrong; any authority, which, in its exercise, drives a wrongdoer either to despair or to resentment, is a failure. The function of authority is not to banish the sinner from all decent society, still less to wipe him out; it is to make him into a good man. The man set in authority must be like a wise physician; his one desire must be to heal.”

Jesus proved to be a wise physician that morning in the temple courts. He upheld the Law perfectly, while demonstrating His surgical skill by separating the woman from her old life. His stunning grace changed everything and gave her just what she needed in order to walk in His ways. Jesus was asking her to do more than avoid sinning. He was asking her to live out the mercy she’d received. He was asking her to forgive—and keep on forgiving—as she’d been forgiven. The only way she could leave her life of sin was by pardoning the man with whom she’d been accused of having the affair, her accusers, and herself.

Consider this: Every time she heard her neighbors’ whispers, she would have to forgive them out of the overflow of the second chance she’d been granted by Jesus. Every time she passed one of her accusers in the street, she would have to drop the “stones” she might have been tempted to lob. Every time she heard the name of the man with whom she’d been linked in adultery, she would have to embrace the mercy she’d received. Every time she saw her own past reflected back to her in a mirror, she would remember she’d been given new life by the One who knew exactly who she really was.

Every time she heard her neighbors’ whispers, she would have to forgive them out of the overflow of the second chance she’d been granted by Jesus.

I realize that for so many years, putting the emphasis on “sin no more” in my own life taught me to focus on my religious performance. In doing so, I made grace far less amazing than it truly is. I missed the power of Jesus’ simple command to this woman who’d just received a reprieve from her death sentence. He sent her back to her old community to live a new life—one that looked nothing like lifeless religious performance, but instead was formed by the reality that she’d been rescued.

It is not the will to stop sinning that changed this woman, that is changing me, that is changing you. Philosopher Peter Kreeft said, “Trusting God’s grace means trusting God’s love for us rather than our love for God.” Most of us live out the forgiveness we’ve received from Him among at least a few people who believe we’re guilty of some kind of moral failure: family members, coworkers, neighbors, ourselves. Trusting His love means tasting the bitter fear of the condemnation we deserve in order to fully savor the sweetness of Jesus’ words spoken directly to us: “I do not condemn you, either.”

 

Photograph by The Voorhes

Related Topics:  Gods Love

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What happens to my notes

1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

2 Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.

3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,

4 they said to Him, Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.

5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?"

6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.

7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.

10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?"

11 She said, No one, Lord." And Jesus said, I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more."]

14 You shall not commit adultery.

10 If there is a man who commits adultery with another man's wife, one who commits adultery with his friend's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

22 If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.

6 On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.

7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

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