In the historical film Schindler’s List, a German industrialist, member of the Nazi party, and spy named Oskar Schindler does everything in his power to save people from the Holocaust, ultimately saving more than 1,200 lives. One of his more brilliant tactics is that of ideological persuasion – seen here when he tries to convince Amon Göth, a brutal SS Commander, of the power of mercy.
While he appeals to Göth’s greed for power to motivate him towards grace, the principle Schindler illustrate rings true: to be above the law demonstrates more power than to enforce it. A police officer, after all, cannot pardon someone, only enforce the law. But an emperor could overrule the law and grant somebody a pardon from a proven offence against the law. That, Schindler says, is what real power looks like.
In today’s story, found in John 7:53-8:11, the Pharisees attempt to use this principle to entrap Jesus. They drag a woman in front of Jesus, and quote the law to him: this woman has been caught in adultery, and Mosaic Law declares that she must be stoned for her transgression. Is Jesus willing to uphold the law at the expense of a human life? Or does he consider himself powerful enough to be above it?
Right away, there are red flags that this may be a set-up to trap Jesus. The Mosaic Law that the Pharisees are referring to is Deuteronomy 22:22 – and it states that both the man and woman caught in adultery should be put to death through stoning. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and yet the man this woman has apparently committed adultery with is nowhere to be found. If the Pharisees are so concerned about sexual sin, why don’t they apply their judgment to men and women equally? Is it possible that the adulterous man is one of them?
The laws of Moses that they appealed to exist in Deuteronomy 22:22-24 and in Leviticus 20:10. Jesus would have been well familiar with these scriptures, and would have known that according to the 7th commandment (Exodus 20:14), adultery is clearly defined as a sin. It was a trap for Jesus: would he have mercy on this woman and clearly disregard the laws of the scriptures in front of people who knew those laws, or would he uphold the authority of Israel’s scriptures and horrify the onlooking audience by condemning a woman to death by stoning, right there by the temple? Surely, no man could have the kind of power to spare this woman and simultaneously uphold the law.
So it’s dawn, the sun has barely reached the horizon, and the pale light illuminates the faces temporarily frozen in a tableau that will test Jesus’ authority, his attitude to the law, his power. There’s the woman, perhaps still clutching a blanket around her body to hide her nakedness. The Pharisees loom over her, smug, leering, ready to take her life just to prove a point. And then there’s Jesus – face serious but kind, expression indiscernible. He doesn’t say a word. He simply kneels in the dirt and begins to write something with his finger. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says softly, and as the Pharisees see what he is writing in the dirt, they slink away one by one.
Then Jesus stands, brushes off his knees, and asks the woman a question with mock innocence: “Where are they?” You can imagine him looking from side to side, eyes wide. “Has no one condemned you?” She shakes her head. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:7-11 ESV).
Instead of claiming to be above the law, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that everyone is under the law and deserves condemnation. As Paul writes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Jesus upheld the law by reminding everyone of their own subjection to it, and showed mercy by sparing the life of the woman. The only person not guilty under the law chose not to enforce it – and the woman caught in the act can only be left with questions: What did Jesus write in the sand? Who is this man who forgives sins? And—how much power lies within this man’s grace?
- Does it matter that this woman’s sin was specifically sexual? Does Jesus treat it differently than we see him treating non-sexual sins?
- Some Christians say “All sin is equal”. Do you believe this is true? Why or why not? Try to give Biblical examples to back up your opinion. Consider James 2:10-13, but also John 19:10-11, and Romans 2:17-24.
- Look at Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. Does this make sexual sins fundamentally different than other sins? More seriously, less serious, or just different in effect?
- Are there certain sins that people around you treat as more serious than others? Which ones? Why do you think this is/is not the case?
- The man that the woman committed adultery with is suspiciously missing from this story. Do you think there were cultural double-standards about sexuality that were at play here, affecting how this woman was treated? What about today - are the sexual double-standards in the world? In the church? Why, or why not?
- Even though God forgives, there are still consequences – often both legal and emotional ones. The story doesn’t state whether the woman here was the married one or whether the man she was with was. How does Jesus admonition to “sin no more” help or not help the marriage that would have been hurt by this act of adultery?
- Most Bibles include a note that earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11. Why do you think this story wasn’t always included? Does that cast it into doubt? If it’s not included, do we lose anything overall about the character of ministry of Jesus?
- The New Testament gives a lot of advice and instruction about sexuality. Read the following passages from Paul’s writings and write your reaction. How do they compare to each other? Do any parts feel contradictory, or too demanding? Anything stand out as strange? Anything stand out as particularly encouraging or helpful?
- 1 Corinthians 7 (the whole chapter)
- 1 Corinthians 5 (the whole chapter)
- Hebrews 13:4
- Most Bibles include a note that earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11.
- Read through John 7 and 8 in a modern translation that reads smoothly. Does the story of the woman caught in adultery seem to fit comfortably in the narrative, or does it seem to awkwardly interrupt the flow of the story?
- If it’s true that this pericope (a fancy theological word for “section” or “story”) was not in the original version of John’s Gospel, how would that affect your view of the story? Would you still consider it something that really happened, and just got added in later since there was no other place for it? Or would it cause you to doubt the legitimacy of the story?
- Imagine that this story was not in the Bible. Could you identify other stories from the life of Jesus (or elsewhere in the Bible) that illustrate the same point about God’s mercy to someone who was guilty of sexual sins?