Advent: December 6
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
11 ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’
The Law of Moses says: If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbour – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. As usual, the Pharisees had got it right – the woman had committed adultery and was liable to be put to death. It was clear that she was going to be stoned. The Law was definitely on their side.
They were not interested in the woman they’d caught – she was no more than a pawn in the cold reasoning of their hard hearts. The man had managed to escape – I wonder if they let him get away? “Jesus, you know the Law – can we hear your view on this?” Lesser men would have failed.
It was not Moses’ law, by the way. It was God’s holy and righteous Law, as presented by God to Moses. The Law was fair and just – the problem is, of course, that it is impossible to follow it perfectly. But God is merciful, and slow to anger. The Pharisees only understood the anger part. The woman had sinned before God, of that there was no doubt, and she was fully deserving of punishment. Had Jesus thrown the first stone he would have done no wrong – it was his right.
But Jesus, the Son of the God of mercy, stays his hand. He pauses before answering, and then turns the Law upon the accusers. “If you are righteous in God’s eyes, then throw a stone”.
The accusers slink off in shame, and each stone thuds to the ground from a loosened fist. Each one of them realises that he is beaten, because they all stand accused before the Law.
The woman is still guilty. She knew the Law. She disobeyed the Law. She stands ashamed, too. Punishment is still due. But mercy triumphs over judgement, and Jesus, who stands unashamed before the Law, opts for mercy instead. The woman is not let off scot-free – Jesus tells her to sin no more.
Have you ever in your life chosen to punish someone by the rules rather than dispense mercy?
Have you ever been let off by someone?
Are there stones you find hard to loosen your grip on?
Father God, your mercy triumphs over judgement, your love covers a multitude of sins. You look at me through the person of Jesus. I am safe in your hands. Amen.