She had a choice.
We can hear this familiar story and let is brush right over us, because clearly we are nothing like this scarlet woman. Caught in adultery. In the act. Dragged from the mattress into the bright and unforgiving light of day and the unnerving stares of the crowd.
And what do you and I think, confronted with this pathetic spectacle? Well, she had a choice. She made her own bed, so to speak. She has only herself to blame.
And that’s true.
But isn’t it also true that the crowd had a choice? There are so many other ways this encounter could have gone. And in its eagerness to pass judgment, the crowd who went about administering justice were so caught up in their own sense of righteousness that they overlooked the actual requirements of the law.
Mosaic law specified that those engaged in unfaithful intimacy had to be caught in the act – and that the consequences should be more severe for the man than for the woman. And in dragging the woman out into the light of day, with no mention made of her partner, the crowd is already redefining justice to its own ends. When it comes to punishment, she’s all alone.
Standing naked before God.
But the unnamed woman is not the only one desperately in need of forgiveness. What if, in today’s narrative, it is everyone in the crowd who stands before God, vulnerable and alone?
Before turning to the woman, Jesus faces her accusers. He does that not by meeting them on their own terms – not by picking up a rock himself – but on his terms.
Imagine the feelings of the mob gathered for blood as Jesus said nothing. The silence that grew heavy as he stooped to write with his finger in the dirt. And then, one sentence. Upending Mosaic law, upending Roman law, making a new way: Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.
And the gut-wrenching sensation of being caught up in our own self-righteousness. Any one of us can pass judgment all day long. But what happens when the Lord invites us to pass judgment on our own selves? Can you truly say that you are without sin?
Remember the infamous Jimmy Carter interview with Playboy magazine? At the time, he was widely mocked for his raw honesty when he admitted that he had lusted in his heart. Well, who hasn’t? The difference is that Carter was holding himself to account. He remembered this narrative, this encounter with Jesus, and he was acknowledging that even as he had been technically faithful, he had not been obedient to the spirit of the law.
When the spirit of the law is a recognition that each one of us is beloved of God, then true justice comes from the heart. And in Jesus’ calculus, the woman standing before him is not the only one in need.
Real forgiveness, the kind that only God can provide, is a choice. Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you.” He looked at her, disheveled, mortified, helpless … and the message that she received was profound. I know who you are. I know what you’ve done. And it’s over. You are more than your actions. Be made whole. Know that you are part of the community. Live restored to relationship.
But before he did that, before he changed her life, he had the crowd to deal with. Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.
Since we’re not in that rock-throwing mob, it’s easy for us to feel a little self-righteous as they look at each other, at the ground, away. As one by one those stones fall back down to the dirt. As first one, then another, then another, slips out of the crowd, avoiding everyone’s gaze.
But why does that encounter between Jesus and the crowd have to be a condemnation? Jesus is about to offer forgiveness to the woman – maybe, just maybe, he’s offering the same forgiveness to the crowd.
Are any of you without sin? Are you really? Put down your stones. Because in judging this woman, you’re condemning yourselves as well. Those rocks you’re about to throw will hurt you as much as they hurt her.
When any one of us concerns ourselves with what others are up to, we’re passing judgment. And that doesn’t help us in our walk with Christ. So maybe that simple statement to the crowd was a gentle reminder from Jesus. An invitation to be forgiven. An invitation to return to walking in the way of love and relationship with our neighbors. An invitation to recognize that sometimes Jesus’ offer of forgiveness doesn’t look like we think it should.
God’s forgiveness might be a little too abundant and generous for our liking. It extends even to people we don’t think are worthy of it, people we like to be mad at, people who are creeps, people who wounded us, people who live differently.
We don’t know what happened after this scene. In the moment, the woman caught in adultery was drenched in forgiveness. But after that moment, she still had to return to her village and live among the people. In their daily encounters in the marketplace or at the village well, did she look at them and remember that here was someone ready to stone her?
But maybe that didn’t matter anymore. Because she had tasted the sweet joy of forgiveness, and having tasted it, having been restored, she was moved to forgive others in turn. Maybe she was able to look at her one-time accusers with love and compassion, remembering that Jesus had once done the same with her.
And what about the accusers? What about the ones who silently made their own confessions by unclenching their fists, releasing the stones, leaving their hands free to receive the same love and compassion and forgiveness from Jesus?
It might have taken time. But I like to think that gradually, the hearts of everyone in the village – accused and accusers – became accustomed to the real fulfillment that comes when we can look at our neighbors and see not the stain of sin – but the Christ that dwells in every human heart.