My wife and I have this little poking fun jab we do with each other. Whenever one of us is being judgmental or sanctimonious, the other will form the letter “J” out of his/her thumb and index finger and call the other person a “Judger.” It is our emotion-friendly way of letting the other know that they are steering dangerously close to the land of hypocrisy. Ironically, to pull the “Judger” sign like that requires a little “judging” itself – which both of us realize – but the silliness of it breaks the tension just enough for both of us to return to a more realistic view of the situation.
The oldest and, in the opinion of many scholars, most reliable manuscripts available do not contain John 7:53-8:11. However, most scholars will agree that the events that are recounted in that section of scripture most likely did occur. More importantly, they contain a valuable lesson about the importance of avoiding hypocrisy and judging others.
The Pharisees were as sanctimonious as they come. Thy made it their pleasure in life to judge others, although they made little to no effort at judging themselves. They had already judged Jesus in their hearts, although by the power of God the Father Jesus himself had the authority to judge all men. The problem for the Pharisees is that Jesus had become immensely popular with the people and his teachings were threatening their power base. In their thinking, the only way they were going to be able to stop him would be to turn the people against him. As a result, they were pulling out all the stops to trap Jesus any way they could in order to do precisely that.
Jesus was known for his compassion. He had fed the masses, healed the lame, and he given sight to the blind. In their minds, he had even compromised the law for the sake of compassion. After all, it was Jesus’ healing of the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath that had finally set the Pharisees against him for the purpose of taking his life.
On the morning of the 8th day after the start of the Feast of Booths – a day that was no officially a part of the Feast of Booths but was still considered a day of celebration and feasting – Jesus was once again teaching in the temple. The Bible tells us that a large crowd of people came to hear him teach. Perhaps the events of the previous day – when he stood up during the Water Libation Ceremony and claimed to be able to provide the living water to all who believed in him – had drawn a larger than normal crowd.
While he was teaching, the scribes and Pharisees joined the crowd, dragging a woman with them that they claimed had been caught red-handed in the act of adultery. There was no question that the woman was guilty of sin. The law demanded death by stoning for such an act of immorality but in reality it had probably been a very long time since that sentence had truly been carried out. Would Jesus have compassion on her or judge her? If he tried to stone her, that would be the end of his ministry and he would have perhaps gone to a Roman prison for murder. If he let her get away with her act of adultery, they would be able to accuse him of not keeping the law. How shrewd they must have thought themselves to be. Jesus was in a pickle for sure. As they presented this woman to him, they said, “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Personally, I’m surprised that Jesus didn’t just say something like “Oh, you precious little ones… you think yourselves so wise and yet you are such foolish children!” Of course, that is what I would have said, which would likely have been cause in itself for the “J” fingers – after all, I sit here judging the Pharisees for their hypocrisy! Jesus did not do that.
Of course their plan truly was flawed in so many ways. First and foremost, one has to ask the question how this woman was caught. How were the leaders so lucky as to catch a woman in adultery at this specific point in time? Was she set up? Entrapped?
Second and more importantly, where was the man in this scenario? As usual, the Pharisees had twisted the relevant law to their own benefit. The law did not say that “such women” were to be stoned. The law actually said that both the man and the woman were to be stoned (see Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:22). Where was the man? Wasn’t the woman caught in the act? If so, wasn’t the man also caught? The man had not been dragged into the temple court to be stoned. If a stoning was to take place, it should be according to scripture – both the man and the woman should be accused.
Finally, scripture was very clear about the manner in which the stoning was to take place. The two were to be dragged out of the city (see Deut 22:24) so that the city would be rid of their impurity. Instead, they dragged the woman right into the courtyard of the temple – defiling the temple with her uncleanness.
As usual, Jesus was the epitome of cool. As they ranted and raved over the woman’s indiscretions, Jesus merely knelt down and was casually drawing in the dirt. When I think on this, I am reminded of my days playing little league baseball. As I became bored with practice (or sometime even at games), I would often kneel down and play in the dirt. It would make my coach so angry! I have no doubt this seeming act of disinterest angered the Pharisees as well. But in the midst of their rantings Jesus stood up and, as he so often did, answered their charges. He said “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then he knelt back down and continued writing in the dirt.
The first to throw a stone? Who should be the first? Deuteronomy 17:17 said that the one who witnessed the sin should be the first to cast the first stone. Scripture is silent on this matter, but I suspect there was no actual witnesses present. In my imagination, I envision that the Pharisees entrapped this woman by convincing someone to have relations with her. He probably reported the success so that they could drag her into public shame. Her accuser was probably not even present. Obviously, I don’t know if this is true, but clearly no one stepped forward to be the first to cast a stone. In addition to the high probability that none of them were witnesses to this indiscretion, none among them were without their own indiscretions either. The Bible says that all have sinned and that the wages of sin is death. We all ultimately deserve death because of our sinfulness and the Pharisees were no exception to that universal truth. One by one, beginning with the eldest, they simply turned and walked away.
Have you ever wondered what Jesus was writing in the sand? No one knows, although many have guessed that he was writing things that reminded them of their own indiscretions. If that is the case, can you imagine what they were thinking? How could he know that? He wasn’t there when that happened! Oh man, I thought I had hidden that! Many have suggested that Jesus was writing down the sins of those who had brought up charges against this woman. Maybe they had also committed sins that were subject to stoning. As best as I can tell from the law, there were 16 different types of sin that demanded stoning. Some of them, such as being an obstinate and disobedient child, could probably apply to all of us. Ultimately, all sin leads to death, which is why all men need a savior – and why none of us should take upon ourselves the mantle of “Judger.”
Perhaps Jesus really did write the names of their sins in the sand, but I am more apt to think that instead of calling out their sins generically he may have written subtle hints into the sand indicating that he knew their most secret sins. It would be too easy for me to ignore the word “disobedient to parents” written in sand and justify that it did not apply to me. However, if something were written that reminded me of a very specific incident in my life, the guilt would be overwhelming. In essence, I think Jesus was holding up the big “J” and saying “Judger!” – except that he did it in a much more sanctified (and more effective) way than we do it in our house!
As a result, all of the accusers left the scene, leaving only Jesus, the woman, and a large crowd of spectators - oh yeah, how could we forget about the large crowd who were there to hear Jesus teach? Can you imagine? You could probably hear a pin drop as the crowd waited breathlessly to see what Jesus would do next. Would he condemn her still? He had forgiven sinners before – what would he do?
Ironically, in dragging this woman to the feet of Jesus the Pharisees had intended evil; but like Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery, God meant it for good. After all, what better thing could you do for someone who is lost in sin but to bring them to Jesus? Like the Pharisees, we tend to judge. We all deserve to have the big “J” shown to us. We look at the sinfulness of those around us and we judge them for it. Judging others makes us feel better about ourselves, so we are often as self-righteous, condemning, and sanctimonious as the hypocrites who dragged that poor woman into the temple courtyard. Lest we forget, 1 Timothy 4:1 (among other scriptures) tells us that Jesus is the one who is to judge both the living and the dead. Likewise, we shouldn’t forget (or rather ignore) our own sinfulness the way the Pharisees did. Jesus previously addressed this in that famous Sermon on the Mount when he said “how can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye?” (Matt 7:4)
Instead of being like the accusing Pharisees, we should forego whatever condemning and judgmental thoughts we may have about the sinfulness of those around us. They unintentionally did the best thing they could have for this woman – that is, to bring her to Jesus. We should be absolutely intentional about bringing them to Jesus. Only when they face Jesus can they then face their own sinfulness, which is precisely what happened to this woman.
Jesus looked at her and said, “Go, and sin no more.”
God is a God of grace, but he still must address the sin. He is willing to forgive, but we must also be willing to repent. The Pharisees could have repented of their hypocrisy, their hatred, and whatever other sin was keeping them from seeing the truth in Jesus’ teachings. Instead, they walked away in the shame they intended for this woman. At the end of the day, the condemned, sinful woman walked away clean – and the Pharisees were the ones who were judged.