Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
When I talk to people who are outside the Church, they often feel churches are obsessed by sex and hypocritical about their own failings (particularly, in recent years, around the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by people in authority, but also about how we use our money). Reading this passage should bring us up short if we think we have somehow progressed and are less prone to sin than people in first century Palestine.
It’s such a wearyingly familiar story – a woman is thought to have done something wrong, and is harried and humiliated by the crowd. Where’s the other party to this alleged adultery? Jesus handles the crowd skillfully; he doesn’t let himself be rushed to a response, but takes his time. Perhaps some of the crowd are beginning to doubt themselves already. They’ve been caught up in the emotion of the mob, and are now regretting their action towards a neighbour. And then Jesus suggests that someone without sin should cast the first stone.
It’s a bit of a gamble. There are certainly people around today who say they have no sin; what if someone like that was to snatch up a rock? But Jesus’ quiet authority seems to have cowed even the most self-righteous of the accusers.
So the mob disperses. But that’s not the end of the story. The woman remains, uncertain, accused but not neither exonerated, punished nor forgiven. Until Jesus speaks those words of forgiveness and encouragement.
When we meet for worship, we share a prayer of forgiveness and hear words of grace. Let us hear them afresh, as if we were the woman accused of adultery hearing Jesus’ words for the first time. And may we amend our lives in response to his call.
Almighty God, we confess before you our own sin, the sin of the Church and the sin of the world, in which we share. We have not loved you with our whole being; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves. In your mercy, forgive us when we turn from you; release us from the burden of our past, and remake us in your image and likeness through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(from the First Order of Holy Communion, Worship: from the United Reformed Church)