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Woman caught in adultery

In recent months, I’ve pored over John 8:1-11. I’ve always loved that story, but it has come to have special meaning to me more recently. When you see bits of yourself in a story, it is hard not to relate.

What I’ve come to notice over the past few months as I’ve sought with varying success and failure to right some wronged relationships is the way that Jesus deals with the issue of repentance and forgiveness.

I’ve been conditioned to believe that if you do something wrong, in order to receive forgiveness, you are obligated to confess your wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness (or better yet, throw a little beg into it). People get to know the details of your sins so they can determine whether or not you are genuinely sorry for it.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with confession. Being honest about the ways that you’ve hurt someone through your actions can be beneficial not only for the other person, but for you. While it can be difficult, I’ve definitely experienced some catharsis from being honest with others, even being honest here with you about my failings.

But what strikes me about this passage is that nowhere in it does Jesus demand that this woman confess. Nowhere in it does he demand that she beg for forgiveness. The two things that I’ve been told, directly and indirectly, are absolutely essential to move forward are completely missing in this section of Scripture. 

Jesus realized that she was simply a prop being used to make others feel better about their own holiness. He saw through their questions and accusations to the real heart of why they had brought this particular woman to this particular courtyard at this particular time. Her guilt or innocence was not really the primary issue here, it was more about whether or not Jesus was going to do the right thing.

Then Jesus does something here that is pretty terrifying.

He doesn’t stop them.

He doesn’t get all up in the face of the Pharisees and the crowd and give a sermon about judgment and mercy and compassion. This sinner really wants to see him dish out a little bit of righteous anger on these people who would want to kill a sinning woman just to make a point, but Jesus just leaves the decision in their hands by asking them to look at their own hearts and go from there.

I’ll be honest, I don’t love that part. I want Jesus to be a bit more protective of the adulteress. I want him to stand up for the oppressed. I want him to be more careful about gambling someone else’s life.

But in the same way that Jesus goes on to say one of the most beautiful lines in all of Scripture, to my ears at least, he doesn’t condemn the Pharisees or the crowd. He knows that at times everyone wants to play the judge and he offers a kind of compassion to them as well.

He offers them the chance to recognize that having the right to condemn doesn’t mean that condemnation is right. 

As he extends mercy to them, they pass it on to the woman by choosing to drop their stones and move on.

And then he turns to the woman. I can only imagine how confused she feels in that moment. She was supposed to die that morning. Instead, some man who spent the past minutes (how long must that have seemed to her?) drawing in the sand, stands up and says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

How do you even answer that? Of course they condemned her! They brought her to the place where she was supposed to be stoned!

But somehow she had escaped the punishment. She was still standing there, able to go on with her life, able to make choices about what she wanted to do from that point. From this place where she had been rescued not only by this man, but to some degree by the crowd.

So she answers that no, no one had condemned her.

“Then neither do I condemn you.”

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