[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]
Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (New International Version)
“Do you ever wonder what the greatest gift is that has ever been given? It is this: mercy. If you wonder what this means, practice mercy and your questions will fade. Live into mercy and you will become what you love. For love unites us in our loving, not in our being. So give yourself to love and love yourself in giving. The rest will follow of its own.”Meister Eckhart (1260–1328, C.E.)
Mercy is scandalous. I wish it weren’t. It seems crazy that this is the case. But here we are, living in an unmerciful world. And even more absurd is that many religious leaders want nothing to do with mercy. The leaders in Christ’s day were trying to get Jesus to depart from his normal routines of grace so that he would appear fickle, unsteady, and weak.
The religious leaders got together and decided to put a woman forward who was clearly a sinner, caught in the act. What to do with her? they asked Jesus. They were, of course, trying to trap him. On the one hand, if Jesus didn’t condemn her, the leaders could say Christ was not upholding the Law. And, on the other hand, if Christ acquiesced in killing the adulterous woman, then the leaders could say that Jesus was inconsistent and unreliable.
The response of Jesus was to stoop down and say nothing. I believe Christ was demonstrating how utterly unworthy the religious leaders were to be heard on the subject. I don’t think there’s anything to conjecture about writing in the sand. It was like taking the physical posture of turning his back on them or putting up a hand, as if he isn’t going to watch the silly circus scene that’s happening.
Jesus wasn’t about to be deterred from his ministry of mercy, from preaching grace, and from hobnobbing with “sinners.” But, since the religious leaders kept up their questioning like a pack of obnoxious yippee dogs, Jesus straightened up and decided to deal with this unmerciful display happening in front of him.
He simply stated that if they want judgment, not mercy, then the one who is without any sin ought to throw the first stone to kill the woman and execute judgment upon her. If innocence is so all-fired important, then it will take an innocent person to punish the guilty.
Whoever accuses another person ought to first look in the mirror to see if there is any innocence reflecting back. And the stark truth is that any old Tom, Dick, or Harry is not qualified to level judgment on another and condemn them. Christ is unmasking the hypocrite who flatter themselves with the supposed high ground of their innocence.
In reality, they are excessively severe and harsh, spiritual felons who have no right to censure others. There is a place for loving correction and appropriate judgment. However, there is never a place in the kingdom of God for eliminating mercy and punishing others with either our hands or our tongues.
Although the wicked and hypocritical religious leaders intended to entrap Jesus by their unholy shenanigans, the tables were quickly turned and their true shame was exposed for what it is – being so darned unmerciful and unloving. Their own guilt is proved by walking away from the scene.
No one has the right to be a jerk. And it is definitely not okay for any person, of all things, to tempt Jesus Christ! And yet, too many religious folk through the centuries have done just that.
None of this means that sin is okay and we can do whatever we want. No, Christ calls us to go and sin no more. Mercy frees us to do just that. Mercy is the key which unlocks the door of freedom and allows us to leave one room for another, to arise from the dark basement of disobedience and despair and enter the bright living room of forgiveness, grace, and life.
Let us then imbibe mercy as the elixir of life – because it is. The world cannot survive without mercy.
We are not the arbiters of who can or cannot have mercy. God said:
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19, NIV)
The Lord has always been characterized as merciful:
Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good. (Psalm 25:6-7, NIV)
Mercy is of high value to God, who said:
Because God is merciful, the Lord calls people to show mercy, as well:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33, NIV)
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13, NIV)
May the gracious and almighty God have mercy on you and forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.