Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
On Day 17, when we reflected on God’s Love and God’s Standards, we saw how Jesus, in fulfilling the Law, actually raised the standards by requiring not merely outward compliance with Law, but a whole-hearted, authentic expression of Love. This culminated in his command for us to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Given these tremendously high standards, where there is no place to hide, we might expect Jesus to be perpetually disappointed in us and quick to judge. After all, with such high standards, we all wind up failing much of the time. Yet, Jesus’ ministry frequently combines judgement and forgiveness, high standards and generous love.
The narrative that perhaps most strongly juxtaposes judgement and forgiveness is the story in John 7:53-8:11 of the woman caught in adultery. This narrative was incorporated rather late into our Bibles, and most Bible scholars are in agreement that it was not written by John. However, most scholars are also convinced that it is an authentic account of Jesus’ ministry and therefore it has been accepted in our Bible. We can, I believe, have full confidence in the veracity of this story as reflecting Jesus’ ministry and voice.
Here Jesus presents himself as the forgiveness of sins – “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). But he also requires and empowers the woman to change – “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b).
This woman is brought by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees to trap Jesus. They present him with a seemingly impossible challenge – if he says they should not stone her, he violates the Law; if he agrees that she must be stoned, he violates his principle of Love. It was a clever ploy.
In doing this, however, they perpetrate a terrible crime against this woman. They dehumanise her. They disregard the fact that she is created in the Image of God. “They made her stand before the group” (John 8:3) suggests that she was standing in the middle of a circle of men – Jesus, perhaps some of Jesus’ disciples and the teachers and Pharisees, with probably a gathering circle of onlookers around them. This in itself is profoundly humiliating – she has no place to hide, no support, no dignity. And we may rightly ask, as many have, where was the adulterous man? It takes two to commit adultery. Why just the woman? This story has therefore been seen as a key example of patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible – of the subjugation of women by men.
Let us be clear, that the Old Testament takes a strong stand against adultery, something contemporary society has all but abandoned. Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel” (see also Leviticus 20:10). But note that the judgement is against both the man and the woman. So the teachers and Pharisees’ statement, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women” (John 8:5), is a half-quote, which further points to their exploitation of her – their objectification of her – to achieve their own purposes.
Jesus is thus faced with two human problems, both deserving of judgement: the woman has committed adultery and the men have dehumanised one of God’s beloved.
Jesus chooses to address the men’s sin first, and then the woman’s.
“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6b).
What is this writing about? There have been many theories, though in truth, of course, we don’t know. If we physically act out the scene, however, we find a possible explanation.
The Pharisees arrived full of zeal and bluster, angry at the woman, eager to trip Jesus up and fully expecting to succeed. But having presented to Jesus their case, there is a moment of silence – they hold their breathe to hear what he has to say; she is standing in the middle, clutching her robe and wishing to die; the crowds are drawing closer in anticipation of something exciting. And Jesus bends down and starts to write in the ground.
It is as if time is suspended. The men are in shocked disbelief. The woman is so dissociated she is oblivious to what is going on. The crowds are whispering to each other, “What’s going on? What is he doing?” Indeed, what is he doing? Some of the men come up behind Jesus to peer over his shoulder, to see what he is writing. Is he writing down the Law of Moses? Is he writing down the woman’s sin? Is he writing down their own sins? What is he writing? They can’t make out what he is writing, so they stoop down themselves, to get a better look, screwing up their eyes to make it out.
Jesus has created a pocket of suspended time; a moment of stillness in the midst of the fervour. The woman is, for now, forgotten, saved from the hostile glares – Jesus’ writing is now the centre. The peering men lose confidence in their assumption that they will beat Jesus, and begin to experience doubt and uncertainty. Inevitably, they begin to fear that Jesus is writing something about them. Perhaps they too have some sin that is worthy of stoning. Perhaps they, like her, will be publically humiliated. What if he knows what they are hiding in their hearts, their secrets?
Some of the men continue to question Jesus. He suddenly stands up and says the famous words, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). And then he stoops down again and continues to write on the ground (John 8:8).
Jesus’ doodling in the dust has prepared the soil for the confrontation, not of the woman, but of the men. They are ready now to recognise their own sin, the injustice of their actions, their ill-treatment of the woman. In the face of such an invitation, how could they stone her? Perhaps, they think, this is a good time to abandon this ploy and get away. Fortunately, Jesus has gone back to his doodling, so they can escape without him watching, judging – a moment of grace. The older ones are the first to recognise that they have no legs to stand on; the younger ones take a little longer to let go of their pride and self-assurance, but even they do, until they have all dispersed.
By this point, Jesus has saved the woman from public humiliation by drawing attention off her, confronted the men with their own sin by his doodling and statement (which is a form of judgement), and invited them to repent by not watching as they give up on their ploy go home (which is a form of forgiveness). All who are now left are Jesus and the woman.
He stands up, and asks her two questions: “Woman, where are they?” and “Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10). He speaks to her with dignity, “Woman”. He does not judge or attack. He asks her questions, in order to engage with her as a human being. Jesus is humanising her again – recognising her worth as a person, her dignity as a creature of God, her value as a woman.
She says, “No one, Sir”; and he says, “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). Jesus was the only one there who was without sin – he was the only one with the right to stone her. And yet, he withholds judgement. He could condemn her, because he is sinless and because she has indeed sinned by committing adultery. But he elects to not condemn. This is a statement of forgiveness. Even though he does not say it straight, “I forgive you your sin”, these words of forgiveness are inevitably implied in his words.,
And finally he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b). He does not pretend that she is sinless. Forgiveness is not about acting as if someone has not sinned. She was, indeed, deserving of judgement. Nevertheless, notwithstanding her sin, Jesus forgives. In the tension between judgement and forgiveness, condemnation and grace, love always wins, because love is at the heart of God.
“Jesus does not condone her sin – he specifically calls it ‘sin’ – but he does forgive it, and as all forgiven Christians know, this free, undeserved pardon is the single greatest incentive for new and improved behaviour.” Jesus’ words convey a sense of empowering her to not sin – it is more than just an exhortation or instruction; it is also an equipping for a life of purity.
Judgement is present when we sin. Jesus in no way condones, permits or even tolerates sin. Sin is everything that goes contrary to God’s desire and vision for us. But it is also entrenched in the character and values of God to reconcile, to forgive and to empower. In this story, we see Jesus doing all of this with both the men and the woman. All are convicted of their sin, and in this way judge themselves. And all are forgiven and given a chance to live a life that is worthy of God’s love for us.
We are all God’s beloved ones. God finds creative ways to mediate between offenders and victims that remind all of us that we are sinners in need of grace, and that we are loved-ones in need of forgiveness.
Meditation for the Day
Think of those times that you have relied on God’s forgiveness – where judgement was warranted, but you still asked for and accepted forgiveness. Think also of those times when you have been reluctant to forgive someone else – where judgement has had the upper hand.
Prayer for the Day
Merciful God. Thank you that you are always willing to forgive, even when I am deserving of judgement. Infiltrate my heart and mind with a culture of forgiveness and generosity.
 I am of the view that he was just doodling, not writing. His doodling was intended to draw attention off the woman and onto the men, and to invite introspection and doubt.