We’re reflecting on a famous scene in the gospel of John today. Jesus had spent the night in the garden of olives. In the morning he crossed the Kidron Valley, entered the city and walked into the area outside the temple. As soon as people caught sight of him they gathered around him. So, he sat down and began to teach them. Some Pharisees and scribes interrupted the scene by bringing a woman to him who had been “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” They led her into the middle of the group. A trial began, but it wasn’t the woman who was on trial, it was Jesus.
There was no question about the woman’s guilt. The Pharisees had already judged her. Now they were going to use her to entrap Jesus. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
To their surprise and frustration, Jesus didn’t give them an answer. Still in his seated teaching position, Jesus bent over a bit and began writing on the ground. Everybody must have been looking at each other. The Pharisees and the scribes were silent for a moment but then began to hassle him for an answer.
Their question was a theoretical one. It was true that several passages in the Law, Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 for instance, prescribed the punishment of stoning for adultery. Jesus didn’t contradict these laws and didn’t agree or disagree with them. This would have been exactly what the Pharisees and scribes expected him to do. In Jesus’ day, only Rome could dictate who would suffer capital punishment. Recall that the Jewish authorities had to ask Pilate to crucify Jesus. They didn’t have the authority to carry out an execution.
Still in a seated position Jesus spoke but didn’t answer their question. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Then he returned his attention to writing on the ground.
Jesus’ answer avoided an interaction with the religious leaders. In fact, it brought their smug self-
righteousness into public focus. How could they possibly continue with their scheme to catch him saying something contrary to the Law? He had thrown the question back to them. They had no answer for him. They remained silent and then walked away.
It’s important for us to note that Jesus sat throughout this encounter. In other words, everything that took place was a teaching. Remember the crowd still surrounded him. They heard what he said. They saw what he did.
When the Pharisees and scribes left, Jesus spoke to the woman while the crowd listened. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” He used the term of high respect when he addressed her, “woman.” Jesus addressed his mother as “woman.” His question was a gentle acknowledgment to everyone that no one was without sin, and that only God could judge the human heart. Then he told her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” Jesus acknowledged her sin. He didn’t brush over it. Hopefully, she would learn from this event and not repeat this sin.
Ironically, the Pharisees were publicly embarrassed for using the woman as a tool to attack Jesus. He turned the tables on them. His statement, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” publicly exposed their sin against the woman.
Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees is a challenge meant for each and every one of us. We need to digest this teaching. We need to take it to heart and to practice it in our daily lives. The Church, as an institution, also needs to take this teaching to heart, to use it as a foundation for its moral teaching. The whole world sat up and listened when, early in his papacy, Pope Francis commented, “Who am I to judge.” These weren’t prophetic words; they simply echoed this teaching of Jesus. This phrase should be a spiritual foundation for Christian and non-Christian, for saint and sinner. If we took it to heart and acted upon it, it just might change the world.