Let's look at the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery in John 8:1-11.
Did Jesus care more about people or about the Scriptures?
That was the dilemma cast before Him, abruptly and unceremoniously, in the person of an unnamed woman exposed in the sexual act of an adulterous affair.
No doubt most of us have heard or read the story many times. How the religious leaders of the Jewish people interrupted Jesus as He was teaching in the Jerusalem temple, thrust the sinner in her shame before Him, and demanded His verdict. “Now Moses, in the Torah, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?”
They were right: the Scriptures do pronounce the penalty for adultery to be death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 17:2-5). What would this radical teacher of the Law, healer, notorious champion of the downtrodden, reply?
Think of what was at stake in this moment. What if Jesus Christ, God-with-us, had responded,No, be merciful—don’t stone her? To do so would have been to discount the truth of the Scriptures, to discredit Himself as a religious authority—not only with the Pharisees—but with all humankind. How could the One who proclaimed that He came not to destroy but to fulfill the Law say such a thing (Matthew 5:17)?
On the other hand, what if He had conceded? Imagine if He had said, Yes, if that’s the law, she must be stoned. How could we ever turn to Jesus Christ as our all-loving God? And what about the woman in the temple—deep in her shame, having likely just jeopardized her marriage, maybe her neighbor’s marriage, probably confused, flustered, scared to death. How could she ever see in this Man the face of her God?
Did Jesus care more about people or about the Scriptures? Which do we care more about?
His answer, when it came, neither dismissed the Law nor conceded to the brutal punishment the religious leaders had in store for the adulteress. Its wisdom penetrated the conscience of those standing by to the point that every one of them dropped his accusatory stone and walked away. “Whoever is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
It is a profound answer, one that contains more than we might first expect. To explore it more deeply, consider a peculiar detail in the story, worth pausing over. We read that before Jesus replied, he stooped and wrote on the ground. This apparently meditative action is not some typical habit of Christ’s. Nowhere else do the Gospels record Him stooping to write on the ground. Why would the Gospel writer think it a significant detail to include here?
Almost every place the Gospels mention writing, it makes reference to the Law—the Old Testament Scriptures. Think of all the times Jesus says, “It is written.” Why might Jesus writeon the ground before answering the Pharisees? Perhaps He is making symbolic reference to the Law, the Scriptures, and then in His response offering a commentary on them. Something along the lines of His refrain in His sermon on the mountain—“You have heard it said… moreover I say to you…”—in which He repeatedly cites an Old Testament Scripture and then infills the outward action—murder, adultery, etc.—with the inner landscape of our spiritual lives (Matthew 5:21-48). Unjust anger in our hearts is spiritual murder, spiritual adultery is lust.
When Jesus told the Pharisees in the temple to look to their own sin before casting stones, He called on them to spiritually stone to death their own deeply interior, monstrous form of adultery. Rocks in hand, they were prostituting the Law, seducing God’s words to copulate with hatred, malice, an accusing spirit ( see Apocalypse Explained 222).
Jesus saved three that day. He gave one woman the chance to apply the Scriptures to her own heart, to sin no more, to begin the work of amending her broken life. He saved the leaders of the Jews from confirming themselves in a horrific spiritual crime. And He provided us with a profoundly necessary model for how to read the Scriptures. To see them as always about us, to take their rebuke and promise inside, to our own hearts, to our own spiritual landscapes.
Elsewhere, Jesus taught that all the Scriptures have at their heart love of God and love to the neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). On that day in the temple, He offered us a way to read even a brutal injunction to death by stoning as the loving promise of the One who wants to give each of us a new heart and a renewed spirit.
Thane Glenn is Chaplin and Assistant Professor of English and Religion at Bryn Athyn College in Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.brynathyn.edu.