This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C. The gospel for the day is the well-known “woman caught in adultery.” In John 7 the Feast of Tabernacles is underway. Jesus has been publically teaching in the Temple precincts, arousing the interest of the people and the concern of the Jewish religious leadership. The leadership meeting presumably took place on the last (and seventh) day of the feast. They are discussing what to do with Jesus – and murder seems to be on their minds (7:1). Early the next day, Jesus is coming early to the temple to teach on the morning of the added eighth day of the feast, which was a day of rest (Lev 23:39).
This stage of the story describes the challenge presented to Jesus by the Jewish leaders, but also infers things about their treatment of the woman, which is callous and demeaning. If she had committed adultery the previous evening , then have these opponents been holding her during the night and waiting for Jesus to show up in order to use her to test him? Was she apprehended in the early hours of the morning? In either case her fear would have been palpable. Putting her in the midst of the crowd would have added public humiliation.
3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. 4 They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
The scene 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 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). This scene has the feel of mob intent on exacting street justice. As a bonus, if Jesus recommends following the Law, the scribes and Pharisee can report Jesus’ actions to the Roman authorities for charges. But they are satisfied with having Jesus “pinned” between the Law and Jesus’ well known views for mercy and compassion even if it required breaking the Sabbath laws.
“So what do you say?” Jesus could, of course, have refused to give a decision. There was no compulsion, and he would have been safe. But in that case the woman would certainly have been stoned.
Not considered by the scribes and Pharisees is that a historical pattern is repeating itself: 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). They are putting God to the test.