Not condemned, but no more sin
The account of the encounter between Jesus and the woman taken in adultery in John chapter eight is one of the jewels of the Christian religion. It has encouraged countless people who have felt the sting of judgement by others and the ache of shame as it has spoken to them of a loving God who does not stand in judgement over them
The story is quickly told, although we all know it by heart anyway. Jesus is teaching in a public place. As he talks to the group around him there is a commotion and there bursts upon the scene a group of men – scribes and Pharisees - hurrying someone along in the middle of them. It becomes clear that it is a woman. Probably a woman in some state of disarray, and certainly a woman in a state of discomfort. Apparently a couple illicitly making love were surprised by some of the Jews and she was seized and hurried along by this group of men. They bring her along to Jesus and the crowd around him open up to let them through when they see the Temple guards or whoever it is who is doing the manhandling. So she stands before Jesus and her guilt does not need to be proved – it is apparent for all to see. There is no disputing about whether she is guilty or not – she just stands there as she can do no other – open to the curious and the judgemental looks of the men around.
Then the facts are stated before Christ, but instead of becoming incensed at the sin of the woman, he stoops down and begins to write in the dusty road. What does he write? We are not told. Some have thought that he started to list the sins that everyone recognized : ‘lust, adultery, fornication, anger, backbiting’ and so on. Some have thought that he wrote a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament. The possibilities of applicable verse are endless.
The scribes and Pharisees insist with their question and Jesus straightens up and says ‘He who is without sin – let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ What a devastating reply! No doubt there was a complete silence as his words sunk in. They could all hear the background noises of the world around them, the sun still shone and the road was still dusty and dry. But there was silence in the group round Jesus while each man looked back and remembered.
Jesus had stooped again and was presumably writing some more –‘lust, greed, and so the list went on. And those nearest to Jesus looked down at what he had been writing in the sand. As they did so a kind of self-reflection started and they began to see a connection between what was written and their own consciences. Or maybe it was just the fact that the response of Jesus was so unexpected – they expected him to agree with them that this was clearly a blatant sin and that the woman was plainly a sinner needing judgement. Instead he stoops and writes in the dust. Maybe some of them began to feel that in part he was stooping to hide a sense of embarrassment – that he felt ashamed of what was happening. Maybe his embarrassed silence got to them.
Clearly first one and then another of the men realized that they no longer wanted to be associated with the triumphant scribes and Pharisees who had dragged the woman there. One by one they turned and quietly slipped away. And still Jesus remained stooping to the ground. Perhaps he kept adding to the list of sins to which we are all so prone.
How significant that the record states that the defection of men from the crowd around Jesus started with the oldest men. The clear inference is that they were the ones who first realised that they were sinners too, and that they had no moral edge over the woman, no right to judge.
Eventually not only most, but all the men had gone. They had left because their own consciences had begun to convict them and they felt ashamed. They had suddenly seen what was happening in a new light – and suddenly they saw their own judgemental attitude in a fresh light. Suddenly they were ashamed. Their own sins caught up with them.
Eventually Jesus looks us. What a moment that must have been! There was the woman still standing before him, but alone. Just Jesus and the woman, in the middle of the public place where he had been teaching.
And he looks at her. The gospel account doesn’t say that, but I guess we can assume it. He looks at her – or perhaps he didn’t look at her. Who knows – but he asks her where everyone has gone. Didn’t he know they had all slipped away? They had been shamed by his attitude and perhaps his words written in the sand. He knew that – and she knew that. So what he was doing, when he asked her where her accusers were, was showing her something. He was saying to her – there is no one who should stand in this street and adopt a judgemental attitude towards you. All men are sinners and your accusers have been convicted by their own hearts. So the woman realises that she is with someone who does not condemn her. That must have been a great sense of relief. She had apparently escaped death and now she is even released from condemnation by others. She was expecting to be stoned and to die and thought her end had come – and suddenly not only is she no longer facing death, but apparently this rabbi in front of her is not even condemning her. Quite probably her mind was in a state of total confusion.
Then he says to her the very simple words that no doubt affected her for the rest of her life. ‘Go and sin no more.’ Suddenly she realises that this rabbi is not against the rules and regulations that govern society – but he is showing her that he understands the human heart, and is telling her that henceforth she can be a better woman. That she has choice. That not only has he saved her from being stoned to death, but that he is now saying that she can be a changed woman.
The story has been read with gratitude by countless millions down the ages. Why has it been so valued? Because it touches a very deep part of our attitude to life.
What Christ said to her is so important : ‘Neither do I condemn thee.’ Does that mean that God doesn’t condemn us for our sins? Does that mean that God takes a lenient view of the many failures we make from day to day? Does that mean that sins of the flesh are somehow less heinous than other sins?
Or does it mean that Christ has no patience with condemnatory attitudes? That he cannot stand men who judge others? That he is deeply embarrassed at the crass insensitivity of men who would drag an adulteress into a crowd of men and try to get her stoned?
Do we get a clue to the heart of God here? Can we now ignore condemnation by men when we succumb to sins of the flesh? Does this story give us hope that we are not meant to live life under the oppression of the rulebook?
All these have been adduced from the story. And no doubt there is truth in all of them – to some extent.
But people who concentrate on this idea that God does not condemn people for sins of the flesh sometimes forget to look at the other half of what Christ said.
Christ also said to the woman ‘Go and sin no more.’ What would she understand by that? Was he really upholding the law – in which case why had he not helped the law to be fulfilled and agreed with the idea that she be stoned? Or was he propounding some new kind of law? Or was he simply telling her how she should live her life henceforth?
We don’t know what the woman made of it. No doubt she departed profoundly grateful that she was still alive. Maybe she simply resolved to be more careful next time and avoid being caught like that. Or maybe she received something from her encounter with Christ that awakened the spiritual hunger that is in all of us – and maybe she went away resolving to be a better person in future.
We don’t know. All we have are the bare bones of the story. So much more we would have liked to know. Yet the story is enough in itself for us to see what sort of person this Jesus really was.
Go and sin no more. This is seized on by those who lean towards living by rules and laws. They say ‘Ah! But Jesus was not abandoning law and regulations. He upheld the moral framework of society (or, religion or the bible etc depending on their particular viewpoint). He didn’t agree with breaking the law – he told her to stop sinning against the law.’
At this point we need to observe that we all pick out the lesson that seems most important to us at the time and we tend not to see the other lessons. We say ‘Jesus didn’t condemn her, so we must be non-condemnatory too’. Or we say ‘Jesus didn’t overthrow the law and he told her not to sin, so we must apply the law to every part of our lives’.
Both attitudes, of course, are an over-emphasis, and wrong because of that. The truth of the story is the combination of the two apparently contradictory elements : no condemnation, yet respect for the law. This is the tension at the heart of the story and it leads us straight to the heart of the tension in Christianity.
The same tension exists between law and grace. We are all faced with this conundrum in our lives How far do we use laws and how far do we let our lives be ruled by grace – filled with love and forgiveness.
We must turn aside for a moment here to note, just in case anyone is wondering, that we should not equate adultery with homosexuality. Adultery is sin, homosexuality is an orientation. The first is a betrayal of the marriage bond, the last is an expression of the inner nature of a person.
To some extent it could be said that the turmoil in the Church of England and across Christendom in these days springs from this inner tension at the heart of Christianity. Do we live by law – imposing rules and regulations, boundaries and limits, trying to live a Christian life according to the precept laid down in the gospels and the letters of Paul and others (not to mention all the laws in the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament)? Or do we live in a free state of love and grace without overmuch attention to ancient (and perhaps superseded) laws which have been hallowed down the centuries?
This conflict between law and grace is reflected in society too. As the iron hoops of Christian morality around the barrel of life in Britain today are slowly loosened (some would say they have already been loosed!), does anything go? Is anything acceptable? Can it really all hang out ? Is being cool the only criterion that matters?
For Christians it is the attitude of Jesus that matters even more than his words on that dusty street long ago. First the men and then the woman all realised that he was totally ashamed for them, that they should do such a thing as drag this adulteress before a crowd to be shamed and possibly stoned. They realised that he was living his life by a higher attitude than law abiding. And by his love and understanding of the deeper reality, he enabled them to rise higher in their own understanding and love. They slipped away, not wanting to press charges.
And we today need to stand before Christ and feel the burning sense of embarrassment at our selfish judgements and our accusations of others. At our desire to impose our interpretations of the law on others, instead of loving them totally as Christ loves us, and releasing them to God to do the judging. Christ marched to a different drum and we need to strain to hear the drumbeat so that we too can walk in his footsteps.