When I was dating my wife, one day her parents had us over for dinner. Around the table, her father asked me, “So is Michelle wearing on you yet?” Have you ever felt trapped in life? Had people accuse you of something, and there seems to be no good answer? That’s how I felt in that moment.
If I answered, “No,” I could be accused of giving the impression that my girlfriend is the kind of person who would wear on me. If I answered, “Yes,” then I would be accusing her of wearing on me. Neither choice was attractive. I was trapped. So I said, “Well, you’ve really backed me into a corner there…” After some laughter, as the question was meant to tease me, I eventually said the truth, which was “Yes, sometimes she wears on me.” That was a humorous situation, but as we will learn, Jesus got trapped in a no-win situation that was absolutely not humorous. Jesus’ situation was downright dangerous.
Look at John 7, verse 53, and chapter 8 verse 1,
“Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.”
The Mount of Olives is located just outside the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had just been visiting for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10). Remember what we studied last week in chapter 7, that the relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders has degraded to the point where they are out to kill him. This murderous sentiment infected some of the festival crowd, but there were also some who placed their faith in Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles Verse 53, though, tells us that the Feast concluded and the people went home.
Then chapter 8, verse 1, tells us that Jesus goes to one of his favorite places, the Mount of Olives. Perhaps he goes to stay with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus who live in the village of Bethany, which is very close to the Mount of Olives. Or maybe he needs time alone, away from the intense scrutiny of the city, and he goes to the Mount of Olives for silence, solitude and prayer.
Either way, we must remember the tension of John chapters 6 and 7. In chapter 6 Jesus gave the freakish “eat my flesh, drink my blood” teaching that resulted in many disciples turning away from him. In chapter 7, we learned how he had tension with his siblings, tension from the crowd in Jerusalem, and how the religious leaders wanted to kill him. Things in Jesus’ life at this point are conflicted.
What happens the next day is legendary. Look at verses 2-6,
“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.”
What is going on here? Jesus heads back into the city, and the crowds flock to him. Even though it is early morning, enough people are fascinated by Jesus to want to be with him. At some point the religious leaders, having caught a woman in the act of adultery, bring her to Jesus, in the temple court, with loads of people watching. It’s the stuff of TV dramas, and it makes you wonder how they caught the woman.
The main drama of this situation, though, is that not the religious leaders were trying to trap the woman, but that they are trying to trap Jesus, and they really have come up with an ingenious ploy. They are right in saying that the Law of Moses addresses this issue.
Here’s what the Law actually says:
Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”
And Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.”
Wait. Both must be put to death? So where is the man? He should be there too. But he’s not, which could be evidence that this all a big set-up. Or perhaps the religious leaders are not keeping the Law strictly. Jesus could have said to them, “Where’s the man?” That would make for an interesting exchange.
That brings us to the pickle that Jesus is in. He is in a very tough spot. If he says, “We must adhere to the Law of Moses and execute the woman,” then Jesus would have been in violation of the Roman Law which forbade the Jews from enacting the death penalty. We will see that very Roman Law come into play at Jesus’ crucifixion, when, though the Jews had condemned Jesus to death at their sham trial, they had to take the matter to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, because only he had the authority to enact the death penalty.
When Jesus is looking at this woman who is accused of committing a crime punishable by death, Jesus must decide if he is going to abide by the Mosaic Law and place himself at risk of disobeying Roman Law. Or will he say, “You may not stone her under Roman Law,” and place himself at risk of being accused of not following the Law of Moses?
It seems the religious leaders have Jesus in a no-win situation, which is exactly where they want him. But do they actually have him in a no-win situation? Is this the end for Jesus? Is he about to be arrested? Take a look at the middle of verse 6,
“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.”
By the way, some trivia for you: this is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus writes. Don’t you wish you could know what he was writing??? There has been so much speculation. Maybe he was just doodling as he considered his response. Some have speculated that he was writing the names of the religious leaders and listing out their sins.
We don’t know. The religious leaders seem unphased. Look at verse 7,
“…they kept on questioning him…”
Perhaps they were pressing him to respond. What does he have to say about this woman caught in the act of adultery, and the fact that the Law of Moses commands them to stone her?
Eventually, Jesus responds. Maybe he’s just had enough of their trumped up ploy. Look at the rest of verse 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’.”
Jesus is the master theological escape artist. His response is so genius. His responses in these kinds of tense, seemingly no-win situations are often so simple, yet so wonderfully insightful. He diffuses the situation with just a few, powerful words, words that reveal an important principle we disciples of Jesus should incorporate in our lives. It is the principle of self-reflective non-judgment toward others. More on that in the next post.
There was not a single person in the crowd that day who could throw the first stone. Why? Because they all had sin in their lives. Jesus has leveled the playing field and redefined how to approach the Law.
Certainly, someone there could have said, “I disagree with your reasoning, Jesus. If we have to be without sin in order to follow the Law, then we’ll be in violation of the parts of God’s Law that says we should hold people accountable. We’ll never be able to hold anyone accountable, because none of us is without sin. So I’m going to throw the first stone, even though I am a sinner too.”
That person could have started the execution, and maybe a bunch of people would have joined in. But an execution didn’t happen that day. Why? Check back to the next post, and we’ll find out.
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash