Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 3, Number 43, October 22 to October 28, 2001


A Sermon on John 8:1-11

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

This passage on the woman caught in adultery presents a special problem as we work our way through the gospel of John. Most scholars agree that these 11 verses are not original to John's gospel. Some ancient manuscripts place them at other places in John, or even in other gospels, or not present at all. However, most conservative scholars agree that this passage depicts a genuine incident in Jesus' life and that it bears the marks of authorship by one of the apostles. Therefore, I believe it is safe to assume that this passage is genuinely inspired Scripture, though it may not have been authored by John.

This passage poses another problem because it has been so misused. People often allude to this passage saying, "Don't cast stones!" — meaning "Don't judge!" And how many times have we heard people quote Jesus saying "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The subtle implication of many who quote this verse is that we should not judge other people because there really isn't a judgment at all. It is very true that this passage teaches that we should not judge, but this passage does not teach that there is not a judgment. Remember what John already said in 3:16-18. This passage clearly tells us that judgment has already been passed — and Jesus came not to judge but to give us an escape from judgment. In chapter 5 we saw Jesus talking about being given the authority to judge by the Father, but the main thrust in those paragraphs was to show the unity of the Father and Jesus. And remember in chapter 7:24, Jesus tells them to stop judging by appearances and make a right judgment. So the cosmic judgment against a sinful race has already been passed. Jesus, in perfect union with the Father, has taken the punishment for that judgment upon himself.

The challenge of this passage is to recognize that we are all guilty of sin. This does not mean we permit people to do bad things, but rather it means that our attitude in addressing those actions should be different. As one commentator put it "this does not mean flabby indifference to moral wrong, but recognition of solidarity in guilt." Our attitude of addressing sin should be like Galatians 6:1 -- "if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently, but watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." later in that paragraph, Paul states that we should not compare ourselves to one another.

Scripture makes it clear that we are not to judge one another (Matt 7:1-2, James 4:11, Romans 14:4, 10). So with all that cross referencing in mind, let me suggest to you that the point of this passage is not to say "don't judge", but rather to give us a picture of how we can recognize the difference between false judges and those who are genuinely interested in confronting with the aim of restoration.

First of all, false judges are insensitive. Look at verses 3-4. The teachers and Pharisees drag this woman publicly before crowds of people in the temple, make her stand before them, and loudly proclaim her sin to the whole crowd. Now they refer to the penalty of death for adulterers in Deuteronomy 22:22, and ask Jesus if it should be carried out. At first glance it seems this was a reasonable request — should we carry out the law? However, there is no record of this penalty being carried out for hundreds of years before this time. But rather than posing this problem to Jesus hypothetically, as other groups do, they publicly shame this poor woman so that their agendas can be carried forward. Had they truly been concerned with righteousness, they would have exhorted this woman to repent and offer a sacrifice to atone for her sin.

Not only are false judges insensitive, they are sloppy. Verse 5 — the Pharisees say, "The law commands us to stone such women". They obviously don't read the law very well. Look with me at the relevant sections of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Leviticus 20:10 states that the punishment is for the man. Deuteronomy 22:22 states that the punishment is for both the man and the woman. Now without getting mired in the tricky details of was this a case of adultery or premarital sex, or was it consensual, we see that there is one glaring problem — where is the man? If they were caught in the midst of sexual activity, it is highly unlikely that he would have escaped. So where is he? They were sloppy — they didn't care about justice, they only wanted to trap Jesus.

We see this sloppiness in all kinds of people who have things to hide. A few years back in Union, South Carolina, a young white woman named Susan Smith called the authorities and told them that a black man had stolen her car with her two young children. The media storm and search over the next few days caught the attention of the nation, but savvy viewers had their doubts — the story seemed too contrived, too calculated to play on racial tensions in the region, and her emotions seemed too stilted. And then they found the car submerged in a lake with the bodies of the two children inside. The authorities quickly determined that Susan Smith had killed her own children — and she was caught because her story was sloppy. This sort of thing happened just a few months ago in Cincinnati — a young man killed his new wife, but he didn't cover his tracks well enough. False judges are sloppy and leave clues to their hidden agendas.

Not only are false judges insensitive and sloppy, but also they are easily shamed. Notice that to their persistent requests for judgment, Jesus states, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." By telling them to throw the first stone, he is merely repeating the injunction that Deuteronomy 13 and 17 give — that the witnesses of the deed must be the first ones to cast the stone. So Jesus is calling their bluff. Jesus, knowing their secret motivation, turns the challenge around on them. He essentially says, "This is your responsibility, because you are the witnesses." Then their consciences did the rest. When Jesus turned the spotlight around on them, their agenda was exposed. In shame, they melted away.

The false judges in this scene are insensitive, sloppy, and easily shamed. After they leave, Jesus indicates to the woman that he does not condemn her and bids her go and sin no more. He recognizes that she's done bad things, and realizes that he does not give her permission to keep on doing bad things. But he frees her to go in the joy and freedom of her forgiveness. He restores her to good graces.

As an example of this restoration is in 2 Samuel 12, and it begins with the prophet Nathan confronting David with this very sin — the sin of adultery. Nathan doesn't drag David before a tribunal. No, Nathan confronts David directly, and when David confesses and repents, Nathan pronounces the Lord's forgiveness. The purpose of all confrontation and discipline is not punishment but restoration to good graces. Nathan then is a living example of Galatians 6:1.

Who do we identify with in this story? The woman? The false judges? The answer is "yes." Jesus' whole point is that all of us — respectable or not, caught in the act or not, hidden behind self-superiority or not — all of us are in need of his grace. How many of us cannot see the Pharisees in our own hearts. How many times have we said inside "Oh, I'd never treat my child that way. Oh, I'd never say that to my spouse." or "I can't believe she spent that much money." "Would you believe what she's wearing" or "He's rather full of himself, isn't he." How many times have we privately or publicly torn down someone else to elevate ourselves? We may not have purposely been trying to elevate ourselves when we think such thoughts but that is certainly what is happening subconsciously, and that is ultimately the sin of the false judges. Similarly, how many of us have had the fear of being exposed in our deepest, most shameful sin? My friend Bill Eckenwiler said that the most devastating thing in the world for most people, particularly we religious professionals, would be to receive an anonymous letter that simply says, "You are a phony. And I know it." This is why most sins are so hard to conquer, because of the shame that comes with being revealed. But Jesus says "Neither do I condemn you — Go and sin no more."

What is the point in teaching about false judges? To show how we can recognize the sin in ourselves and thus confess it, repent of it, and appropriate the grace that is afforded us in Jesus Christ. Do you remember Nathaniel Hawthorne's literary masterpiece The Scarlet Letter? The story takes place in New England, and the main character was Ms. Pryne, who was caught in adultery and had a child out of wedlock. Her punishment is that she must wear a scarlet "A" on the exterior of her clothing so that her shame will be visible to all.

However, her lover was never revealed. Near the end of the book, her lover reveals himself to the community — he was Rev. Dimmsdale. The whole time she had been wearing the exterior "A", he had been wearing a secret "A" branded on his chest. She had been forced to bear her shame publicly, but he had borne it secretly.

We all carry our letters publicly or privately. Only Christ can forgive us, saying, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." You think about that before you judge. Amen.