We conclude this series today with the beautiful gospel of “the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery” from John 8. The Gospel is intriguing on so many levels not least because of the manuscript uncertainty concerning its placement in this location in John’s gospel – many early manuscripts do not include it all, others place it somewhere else, others in the gospel of Luke (which seems closer in language and style). It can be removed from John and not interrupt the flow of the narrative, yet including it here provides the background for the increased tension between Jesus and the Jewish officials, and a great counterpoint to the end of chapter 8 where the officials are again picking up stones – this time to throw at Jesus.
Even though I am no expert in such matters (that is my story, and I am sticking with it) – it would seem that if she was caught in the ‘very act’ of committing adultery, then her accomplice in this act should also be standing there naked alongside her – this seems to be the suggestion for the phrase that the woman was positioned ‘in full view of everybody’ in the square that day. The absence of her partner suggests that the crowd has another partner in view, which very quickly becomes Jesus as the questions are directed at him. This gospel is also the only place where it is recorded that Jesus wrote anything – so of course there has been tremendous speculation about what exactly it was that he was scribbling in the sand.
When he pronounced any kind of judgement it was against the collected crowd, inviting any who were without sin to be the first to cast the stone. Beginning with those who had the greatest opportunity to both sin and reflect upon their sin – the oldest are the first to lay down their stones and make their exit from the scene – until only two are left: in the words of St Augustine, misera et misericordia: the miserable and mercy. And there is no judgement that he passes upon her as he looks up into her still scared and frightened face: neither do I condemn you, go and do not sin again.
Learning to receive the mercy of the Lord is perhaps one of the most difficult things that we will ever do. Learning to allow that declaration that there is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) is beyond most of us. It just seems to be impossibly good news. So how can we lay down our stones and not exact revenge on others when we do not allow the mercy of the Lord to be received in our own souls?
Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (12min)
Lent, Sunday 5, Year C. John 8:1-11; Phil 3:8-15