The Woman Caught in Adultery

Read: John 7:53 – 8:11

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground (John 8:3-6, NRSV).

Let’s call her Kate.

I know, I know. The story doesn’t tell us her name, but “Kate” sounds like someone we might know from school or church or water aerobics class. Kate is a real human being with a favorite color and a favorite song. She has strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. In short, Kate is more than just a woman wearing a scarlet letter “A.”

Seeing Kate as a person instead of a pawn is key to understanding this story. Let’s remember that as we consider the other characters.

First there are the morality police. (That’s not how the gospel writer identifies them, of course, but if the sandal fits….). You can tell a lot about these guys by what they do and say. After having caught our friend, Kate, “in the very act of committing adultery,” they drag her into the temple precincts and make her “stand before all of them.” So, public shaming is high on their agenda. If she was caught “in the very act” as they say, one wonders why they haven’t dragged her partner in as well. After all, the “law of Moses” has an equal opportunity death penalty for both parties in cases of adultery (see Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22-24 if you dare). Maybe they just aren’t that interested in shaming a man.

But I think shaming, misogyny, and bloodlust are just icing on the cake for these guys. Their primary goal is to set a trap for Jesus. After citing the law of Moses, they turn to Jesus and ask, “Now, what do you say?” To make sure we understand that this is a trap, the gospel writer whispers loudly to his audience: “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” Got it. Trap baited and set.

Jesus, however, does something completely unexpected: he bends down and writes with his finger on the ground.

Wait. What?

While we can’t be sure why he did this, I think it’s fair to say it took the attention off of Kate for a moment. (Thank you, Jesus!) It’s clear that it also frustrated the morality police. They continue to pepper him with questions until finally, he stands up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bends down again and writes some more in the dirt. Jesus seems to have sprung a trap of his own because, after this, “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.” Jesus and Kate are alone at last. He straightens up and asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

What, I wonder, did he write in the dirt? There’s no way to know, of course. But I have a theory.

The first time, I think he wrote her name: KATE. KATE. KATE.  I see you. I know you. I love you, would have been the message to her.

The second time, I think he wrote the names of her accusers—along with a few pithy details of their sins. Enough to send them a strong signal that—to paraphrase the Samaritan woman in chapter 4—this guy knows everything you’ve ever done.

Who knows. But whatever he wrote, it sent the morality police scurrying away. And it left our friend Kate alone with the one man who would never hurt her, shame her, or disappoint her.

Ponder: What does this story have to say to us today? Have you ever been the target of a mob? A member of one?

Pray: Thank you for seeing us, for knowing us, and for loving us, O God. Forgive us for being so quick to cast stones.