A classic Michael Spencer post from May, 2007.
The last few weeks of my men’s morning Bible study has been about “Texts That Will Get You In Trouble,” and we spent two sessions on John 8, and Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Read Leviticus 20:10 and the other older testament indictments of adultery and sexual sin. There’s no doubt about the woman’s sin or the stated penalty.
The Pharisees’ motives aren’t really the important fact here. Their use of the law is the focus. Even more important is “What is God like?” Does God have moral commands for human beings? Are we created in such a way that adultery is more than just a behavior consenting adults engage in; it is a violation of the sexual and marriage bonds that God considers sacred because they reflect God’s covenant love. How does God’s justice relate to his moral standards, and how do those living in community before God experience and demonstrate God’s law and God’s justice?
Often, interpreters focus on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees for not having the man present, or the double standard inherent in holding a woman more responsible for sexual sins. In fact, while these concerns may be valid, they are not the focus of this story.
This is an incident where Jesus’ understanding of God and his purposes are contrasted with the understanding of the Pharisees, who functioned as a renewal movement seeking to bring about the salvation of Israel by zealous attention to the keeping of the law. Like so many other incidents at this point in Jesus’ life, this one is meant to publicly discredit Jesus as a dangerous liberal who rejects the Law and covenant obedience.
Jesus brings the focus away from the particular sin of the woman in violation of the covenant law, and puts the focus on the universal fact that God is in covenant with a sinful people who constantly depend on his mercy. God has been working to bring about redemption in a sinful world from the beginning. The universal sinfulness of the human race has been the backdrop of all God has done in his covenant, both for Israel and for the world.
Listen to Yahweh in the book of Deuteronomy:
Deut. 9:4 Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ˜It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Deut. 9:6 Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.
God never gave the Pharisees permission to think that the covenant depended on anything but God’s gracious involvement with people who, as individuals and as a nation, deserved his wrath and justice like the rest of the world.
This explains why Jesus takes the “small circle” of the woman’s adultery and turns it into the “large circle” of “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” He isn’t minimizing adultery or saying God does not desire that we honor the law. He is saying that God is not on the side of religious zealots putting themselves in the place of God as if they were somehow deputized to play God. For Jesus, the mark of those who are in the covenant is their gratitude for God’s mercies to include sinners of all kinds within the boundaries of “his people.”
The second part of the text is Jesus’ conversation with the woman, a conversation that focuses on the word condemnation. There is the inadequate and flawed human condemnation of the woman, and there is the justified and appropriate divine condemnation of a guilty adulteress.
Those who would have singled out this woman’s sin have dispersed. None of us can stand in the place of God in the condemnation of another person unless we have been divinely authorized to do so (and the Pharisees were not given that position.)
Jesus, however, was different. He had the authority of his heavenly Father. He has the authority to judge. He is righteous. He is the author of the law. He has the power, the right, the insight and the ability to condemn an adulteress. In fact, if he does not do so, he must answer the legitimate question “why not?”
“Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.”
When the quality of God’s mercy in the Gospel no longer amazes you, you will begin to justify the dilution of amazing grace into religious grace, or moral grace, or grace in response to something.
Real grace is simply inexplicable, inappropriate, out of the box, out of bounds, offensive, excessive, too much, given to the wrong people and all those things.
When God’s grace meets us, Jesus has to order away the accusers of our conscience. Satan. Religion. Parents. Church members. Culture. Morality. Legalism. Civility. The oughts. The shoulds. The of course we know thats. The I’d like to but I just can’ts.
Jesus orders them away so he can tell us that grace is doing what only grace can do, and we must go and live in the reverberation of forgiveness. We must live with the reality of grace when it makes no sense at all, can’t be explained and won’t be commodified or turned into some form of medicine.
You may not know that this story is a bit of a homeless story, banging around various manuscripts of the New Testament with no real home. It comes to rest in John 8, but it’s not part of the original. It’s a story that the Jewish leaders of early Christianity wouldn’t have liked, and recovering Pharisees would probably have been happy to lose it.
But it persisted, and is in our New Testament, I believe, because at the heart of true Christian experience is this inexplicable, annoyingly inappropriate, wondrously superlative experience of Jesus saying, “I don’t condemn you. Go and live your life.”
He says it to the divorced. To the expelled. To the unemployed. He says it to criminals. To perverts. To the damaged and the worthless. He says it to cutters, to whores, to greedy businessmen, to unfaithful husbands, to porn addicts and thieves. He says it to the lazy, the unholy, the confused and even the religious. He says it to you and to me.
It’s how he changes lives, and it’s as dangerous as ever.
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Header image from John Martin Borg.