but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. John 8:1-11
Why is everyone so concerned about what Jesus wrote in the sand? I know some people think he was writing the ten commandments and others think he was jotting down the personal sins of all the accusers, with arrows pointing at each individual, but does it matter? Eventually, it’s not what he wrote that convicted them and sent them away, its what he said. And what he said was a verbal stone thrown by the only one who could have legitimately thrown it.
“Let he who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
In this one simple statement Jesus is revealing to each person their true standing before God based on their own performance. By lobbing that “boulder” of a statement at the woman’s accusers, he is proving that he is the only one who could throw a stone at anyone. Even now, when I hear those words, they still hit me. It doesn’t just hit me like a stone, but a ton of bricks. Even as a “christian” for all these years, it still has the same effect on me. It humbles me and reminds me that I have no true right to condemn anyone. The fact remains, that if I were to rely on my ability alone to be considered righteous before God, I’d be more deserving of being pelted than anyone else. Does it mean I can’t talk about sin? Even someone else’s sin? Of course not. What it means is that I put my stone down and give them the open arms of grace and mercy.
I guarantee you, that person who is dragged out before the masses, know their sins. The one who has every finger pointing at them is fully aware of their guilt and shame. The one who sees an ocean of angry faces holding rocks ready to let fly, knows they deserve to have every pitch hit its mark. Those most aware of these things don’t need the law. They know they’ve broken it. They know they’ve fallen short. What they need in that moment is to know forgiveness is available, no strings attached. They know they deserve to die, but right now, they need to know, “how do I live with myself in the aftermath?” Those “called out” for their sins always need grace. I remember my wife’s concern over a purity class being taught in a youth group years ago. I’m sure it was a good and helpful class, but my wife’s concern was for the those who had already given up their purity. What will you say to those who have gone past that point? The ones who will hear, “remain pure” and feel condemned and called out by it, because they will feel that way. In that moment, they, like the woman exposed, need grace and forgiveness. They need to know they are loved and will always be loved and forgiven no matter how much sin and shame gnaw at them. If we are honest, we know old sins still gnaw at us at times, even if it’s just a nibble.
Now, the one’s doing the calling out needed something else. The angry crowd testing Jesus in that moment needed a stone thrown at them and they got it. It was a stone of law, a stone of condemnation, a stone of judgment. it’s interesting to note, that even in that moment, Jesus, was slow to speak. Bending down, finger tracing across dirt, all the while, being ask over and again for his input. I don’t ever imagine God eagerly wanting to punish or condemn anyone and I think this is a similar picture of that. When he finally speaks, the crowd, according to scripture, reacts to what he says and not anything scribbled in the sand:
“But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.”
The crowd that violently ushered this woman before Jesus, walked away. I would even say that they walked away bloody from this one stone Jesus threw. This stone that seem to miraculously ricochet off the heads of the oldest in group right down to the youngest. I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought this, but believe it our not, I think there is hope here for the accusers as well as the accused. Consider if there is any greater hope for someone in the faith or not yet in the faith, than to be convicted of sin that’s been laid bare before God? These were learned men, scribes and Pharisees, confronted with their own wicked hearts. They were legalists, who thought they kept the law of God. These are the kinds of people who are never quick to admit to fault or error. It must have been an extremely powerful image to see these “great men of God” walking away. Each step leaving a heavy footprint of guilt and shame in its wake. They came to Jesus standing on pedestals, they left probably feeling the same accusation they cast on this woman. This is important because she was in a position to receive grace and mercy and that’s exactly what she got in that moment when only Jesus was left. Maybe that condemning stone of law was the beginning of something for some of these men. The beginning of God transferring some from death to life, from law to grace. I find hope in their reaction to those words that Christ spoke. I see myself in them, not just 15 years ago, but today.
While working in Family Court, I’ve had the opportunity to witness children, young teenagers and pre-teens being brought on any number of charges. One memory always stands out for me. Four teens being led through the hallways of the courthouse handcuffed together. Three of the teens cluelessly laughed about it and seemed to mock their predicament. The last one was somber. Dried tears streaked his face while fresh tears formed new tracks down his cheeks. I could see it in his expression that he was afraid. Whether it was fear of the law or parents or probably some combination of both, this child knew the gravity of his situation. He was in trouble. In that moment, I had more hope for him. I can only hope that the Judge recognized the difference in posture apart from the other three and gave him some measure of grace in that moment (and Judges DO give grace). I could see that he needed it and that he probably would have responded to it. These accusers of the woman caught in adultery seemed to walk away with that same sense of gravity after Jesus’ measured response. They seemed to be more aware of their true selves in light of their supposed righteousness before God. I imagine not just an inward revelation but an outward manfestation of it. I can picture them walking away, puffed chests now deflated, chins once held high but now hidden by heads hung low. This posture IS a place for hope to operate in, for grace to begin to work. These men were now beginning to walk in the previously accused woman’s footsteps. How could they throw a stone?
The woman rightly judged for her knowingly sinful behavior, received mercy from the only one who could have righteously and sinlessly thrown a punishing stone. She was encouraged to go forward in grace by the only one who is truly able to give it. The accusing men were hit with a stone and rightly so. It hit it’s mark perfectly. Just as the woman needed grace in her condemnation, these men needed law in light their alleged righteousness so they might see the need to receive grace and there is hope in the end for all who repent and find their faith in Christ Jesus.
Side Note: It doesn’t surprise me in this moment that Jesus used both law and Gospel. He used what was needed for the ones that needed to hear it. When Jesus throws a stone it always hits its target.