The story of the woman caught in adultery is the sleaziest chapter in the New Testament. Everyone, but Jesus is a sinner, and the adulterous woman is perhaps the least of them
To understand why we need some background.
It was easy for a man to divorce his Wife. One famous rabbi (Hillel) held that a man could divorce his wife if she turned out to be a bad cook. But if he divorced her, he had to return the dowery unless she was convicted of adultery
In Jewish law adultery was a capital crime punishable by the savage death of stoning. The great rabbis were cultured and ethical men and did not want to enforce this. They did not condone adultery, but they recognized that the punishment was greater than the crime. So, they required that there must be two male eyewitnesses to prove anyone’s guilt for the death sentence to be imposed. Furthermore, they defined eyewitness as literally that: both witnesses had to actually see the act. This was taken so seriously that if a whole village saw someone enter a house, come out a few minutes later and a dead body was found in the house immediately after that they could not convict.
Therefore, how could two eyewitnesses be found for adultery, an act usually very private indeed? The presumption is that the woman was set up and that this would not come as a great surprise to the people in her quarter of Jerusalem.
Note also that the man, also liable to the same penalty, has conveniently disappeared and the trial, which was supposed to be held has been forgotten,
It also seems too convenient that Jesus just happens to be present. The Scribes and Pharisees wish to trap him as well. Most scholars believe that this passage is from St Luke but found its way into John in some manuscripts. In Luke it would have been found with the confrontation between Jesus and those who asked, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:19) As adultery was not a capital crime for the Romans and the Jews were forbidden to execute anyone anyway this was a ploy to have Jesus choose between obeying Jewish or Roman Law. In both cases Jesus not only maneuvers out of the boxes his opponents sought to keep him in but raised the discussion to a higher level. Overturning expectations is a favorite technique of St Luke most clearly with Mary the mother of Jesus who reminds us at the very beginning of the Gospel that Jesus will cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
By law, the accusing witnesses had to cast the first stone. No matter what they may have done previously in their lives, the complicity of the witnesses with this sorted mess alone would have implicated them in grave sin. The scribes, pharisees and elders who manipulated these events to have some charge to bring against Jesus would have been exposed and could not be deemed sinless by the people who had come to see Jesus in the temple area.
This is powerful as it is but Luke, ever the artist, will give a reward to those who read closer and know their scriptures.
What did Jesus write in the dirt. On one level he might simply have been showing his contempt for the whole proceeding but on another he is reflecting a passage from the prophet Jermiah:
… may those who turn away from thee be written on the earth, for they have forsaken the fountain of life, the Lord”
By their cruelty to the woman and their pathetic attempts to trap Jesus the Scribes and Pharisees have forsaken the very fountain of life and deserve to be remembered only in dust.
As was his custom, especially in Luke. Jesus has afflicted the comfortable but now will comfort the afflicted. Although the woman was the essential instrument in this caper, she has been ignored throughout the story. Indeed, for the purpose of both her husband and his accomplices and the Scribes and Pharisees she is incidental. But no one is merely incidental for Jesus and so he questions her.
What did she expect him to say or do? Condemn her, perhaps even strike her. As we see throughout the scriptures Jesus does not immediately address the issue at hand but to put her at ease makes small talk saying simply “where are they”. Only then he asks, “has no one condemned you?” Everyone is like her a sinner, but she now is one who has a relationship with Jesus. Being in relationship with her he will not condemn her but will challenge her. We will always fall short of perfection, but we must never cease trying.
As I mentioned before this is a lost passage of scripture. Sometimes found in John, sometimes Luke, sometimes in neither. This may seem like a very technical point that does not really affect us. Yet look at it closer. It was most likely lost because it was embarrassing. It can make us uncomfortable. It seems as if Jesus is too forgiving, too understanding. It is as if we must protect Jesus from those who might think he actually believes what he is saying. Captial punishment may be too much, but shouldn’t he have berated her or at least, given her a good talking to? Understanding the nature of the human person he created he did not cast her down in guilt but raised her up in love.
This made many in the early church uncomfortable and may indeed do the same with us because there are consequences. If Jesus who is in no way implicated in sin forgives with such abandon how can we who are sinful not do the same?