The scene in today’ gospel (a woman caught in adultery) is a mixture of zealous righteousness that seeks to enact the law without pardon or quarter, the leadership who want to trap Jesus between mercy and the Law, and a woman caught in sin, fearing for her life. The Law commands a stoning to death as punishment for her transgressions. More precisely the law speaks of the death of both the man and the woman involved (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24). The law makes it clear that stoning could only take place after a careful trial, which included the chance for the condemned to confess his or her wrong (m. Sanhedrin 6:1-4).
True righteousness would have some measure of concern for her soul. True righteousness would be free from deceitfulness, not hiding behind loyalty to Moses for other intentions. Since the law says both the man and the woman who commit adultery are to be killed, we are left wondering why the man was not brought in as well. It may be that he had escaped, but the fact that only the woman is brought raises suspicions and does not speak well of the true object of their zeal.
This situation is apparently just an attempt to entrap Jesus (v. 6). If he is lax toward the law, then he is condemned. But if he holds a strict line, then he has allowed them to prevail in their merciless treatment of this woman and has opened himself up to trouble from the Romans, for he will be held responsible if the stoning proceeds. The leaders of Israel are putting God to the test in the person of his Son, repeating the Israelites’ historical pattern on more than one occasion in the wilderness at Meribah and Massah (Ex 17:2; Num 20:13; cf. Deut 6:16; Ps 95:8-9; 106:14).
Jesus Response to the Leaders. When he heard what the teachers of the law said, Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. Being seated as he was to teach, Jesus stooped down to write on the ground. This action has been variously interpreted. Some say Jesus was embarrassed to be confronted by a promiscuous woman (unlikely); others, that it was a ploy to gain time to think how best to answer. Again, others have suggested it was a prophetic action modeled after Jeremiah 17:13. But the connection between Jesus’ action and that text is slight. A better suggestion is that Jesus’ action was a sign of his refusal to debate the issue on the terms dictated by the teachers of the law. This would account for their persistent questioning.
If his actions do echo Jer 17:13 (“Those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water,” perhaps “written in the earth” is the polar opposite of being written in the book of life (Ex 32:32; Dan 12:1). This scene focuses on the woman but is being spoken to all the people – now is the time for all to choose.
When the Pharisees and scribes keep on questioning him, Jesus straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ According to the law, witnesses to a capital offence had to cast the first stone when the accused was condemned to death (Deut. 17:7). Jesus regarded the teachers of the law as witnesses to the offence. Therefore, they should begin the execution if it were to go ahead. But Jesus’ words challenged the accusers, implying that none of them was without sin and therefore they were in no position to condemn this woman. What sin Jesus was implying they were guilty of is not clear. Perhaps they too were guilty of adultery. Perhaps they were malicious witnesses in terms of Deuteronomy 19:15–21, because they were not interested in seeing justice done, but only in trapping Jesus.
Having spoken Jesus again stooped down and wrote on the ground. This is probably best understood as an indication that Jesus was refusing further debate. We are not told what Jesus actually wrote, so it is pointless to speculate. What he wrote plays no part in the story, because the teachers of the law, the crowd and the woman all responded to what Jesus said, not what he wrote. Therefore, it did not need to be recorded.
An optimistic reading of Jesus’ call for the one without sin to cast the first stone is “all the people” have been turned away from their murderous intentions onto the path of life as the withdraw to reflect on their own sinfulness before God. It has often been suggested that the eldest accusers were the first to leave (v. 9) because they recognized their own sinfulness more readily. However, leaving in this order may simply reflect the custom of deferring to the elders. In any case, their withdrawal was in fact a recognition of sin. Those who came to condemn ended up condemning themselves by not casting a stone.
Jesus is left alone, sitting on the ground, bent over and writing, with the woman standing before him. As Augustine says, “The two were left alone, misera et misericordia” (“a wretched woman and Mercy”; In Augustine’s commentary John 33.5).
Jesus’ Reconciliation of the Woman. This prepares for the fourth and final stage of this story–Jesus’ response to the woman (vv. 10-11). He straightens up and asks for a report of what happened, as if he had been totally oblivious to what took place as he concentrated on his writing. He does not ask her about the charges but rather about that aspect of the situation most heartening to the woman: Where are they? Has no one condemned you? (v. 10).
But there is one left who could still execute the judgment–the only one present who was without sin and thus could throw the first stone. Is she hopeful at this point or still quite frightened? We can only speculate as to whether the woman was familiar with Jesus and his embodiment of the mercy of God. In any case, she becomes a memorable example of the fact that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). Jesus says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (8:11). Jesus grants pardon, not acquittal. Here is mercy and righteousness. He condemned the sin and not the sinner (Augustine In John 33.6). But more than that, he called her to a new life. The gospel is not only the forgiveness of sins, but a new quality of life that overcomes the power of sin (cf. 8:32-36; 1 Jn 3:4-6).
The story is a succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus; a scene St Augustine captures as he writes, at the end, relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia (there stand the two alone, misery and mercy). Reconciliation is not the result of a sinner’s humiliation but the encounter of two persons. Without love, there is no forgiveness. With love, a whole new life is possible.