So the story goes that one day Jesus was teaching in the temple. The odds are good that his usual crowd was gathered around him. Yes, there were the devoted disciples, but there were also the fringe hangers on, the curious lookey loos, and the skeptics. Whatever brought them there, they were sitting down to listen to this enigmatic man teach. I imagine those toward the rear of the crowd heard the commotion first. Then the sound grew louder and more and more people’s attentions were drawn to the noise. Then Jesus finds himself fully interrupted.
The narrator tells us that she was caught in the act. That’s always struck me as odd. Was this woman just totally lacking in discretion? Was she out in public? Also, “caught in the act” suggests that there were two people there, as “the act” is a show with a two person minimum (I used that line once at a youth gathering. A parent yelled at me afterwards because she had to explain orgies to her teen son. Better he learn from me than out in these streets, ma’am. Anyway….) “Caught in the act” suggests a set up. Perhaps a spurned potential lover set her up for rejecting him. Perhaps the man was being set up, but he got away. Perhaps it wasn’t a man.
Or perhaps, they were setting up Jesus. Setting up Jesus, by this point in the fourth Gospel, was becoming something of a sport for the Scribes and the Pharisees. Again, it seems awfully coincidental that she would get caught at just the right time for her to be brought before Jesus. I don’t know… I’ve always thought this scenario kinda stinks.
They quote scripture at him. “You know, the law of Moses says that we’re supposed to stone a woman like this,” as if he didn’t know the law. Maybe they only thought he knew the stuff about caring for the poor. Now it’s clearly a test for Jesus, but this woman has become a pawn in these man-games. It’s a horribly distasteful story.
Jesus, eyes the situation. Looks at the woman. Looks at her accusers. Says nothing. Bends down. Writes in the sand.
“So… we stoning here or what?”
“Dude… say something!”
Many have speculated on what he was writing. Some have argued that he was writing out the decalogue. Some think he was writing “where’s the man?”. I imagine the man was in the accusing crowd and I think he might have pulled the plug on this operation if he saw those words scribbled in the sand. Whatever Jesus was writing in the sand wasn’t important enough for the evangelist to note. That leads me to believe that Jesus was less “writing” and more “doodling”. I like the idea of Jesus, Bob Ross style, drawing happy little clouds or M birds. Perhaps he was sketching out the dimensions for a table he never had a chance to make back in his dad’s shop. That doodle would be worth SO much money today!
The crowd continues to question. Finally, Jesus stands up. This then turns into what I think of as one of Jesus’ most badass/smartass moments. “Sure… you can stone her. Just make sure the person here without sins throws the first stones”. And then, Jesus returns to his doodle. Like a boss!
I don’t know if specific sins flooded into the minds of the accusers, these supposedly righteous Scribes and Pharisees, or if it was a general understanding that their hands weren’t as clean as they imagined them to be. Whatever it was, they dropped their stones, turned and walked away. I imagine they swore as they did so. I can hear some Pharisee going “Whose plan was this?”.
Jesus now sits with the woman who has gotten a raw deal from the beginning of the story. She’s gotta be feeling some mix of exhaustion, confusion, relief, and apprehension. She’s still not technically out of the woods at this point. After a little while, Jesus stands and meets her eye to eye, just as he did her accusers. “Where’d they go? No one condemned you?”
“No one, sir”
“Good. Me neither. Now go and don’t do that again”.
We don’t know what happened next for this woman. It’s nice to think that she never found herself in another situation like that. It’s also a tad naive. We don’t know what lead her there in the first place. Maybe she was genuinely in love. Maybe she was trying to make ends meet. Maybe she had been forced. Or maybe she was simply caught up in a moment of passion. The story just doesn’t say.
It also doesn’t say “Jesus told her to go and sin no more… or else”. “Go and sin no more” wasn’t a threat. It was a hopeful command, an aspiration for this woman’s life. It wasn’t erasing her past, but it was projecting a new future. It was a pronouncement that, if she wanted it, she and her life could be very different from whatever circumstance got her here.
I’ve heard a lot of variations of “go and sin no more” in the last couple of years, many in the last few weeks as I begin to step back into the church world. More often than not, it comes from authorities within the system who say it as a threat. “One more strike and you’re out! Then we’ll know you’re just a bad person!” Sometimes it comes from friends and loved ones. “Dude, I love you, but don’t put us through this again!” It occasionally comes with reassurance. “I love you no matter what you do.”
What I hear from Jesus, and what makes most sense in the context of his ministry is not “go and sin no more… or else” it’s “go and sin no more… but”. “But if you end up back here, I’ll still love you. You’re still my beloved. You’re still made in my image. It’s gonna be harder for you next time, but I’m never going to leave you alone”.
Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m creating God in my own image again. Maybe it’s just what I need to hear…