A White Stone in lieu of Stoning
At dawn Jesus 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, “If any one of you is without sin, let him 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 sir,” she
said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
— John 8:2-11
It is very interesting that the earliest Biblical manuscripts and other ancient witnesses did not contain this story about Jesus, writing on the ground with his finger. Disregarding the urgent questions of the lawyers and Pharisees who stood the adulterous woman before Him in the temple, He traced lines in the dust as if that activity was more important than the grave matter brought to Him. These learned men interrupted His lesson to entrap Him, and rather than express irritation or exasperation, Jesus knelt and wrote in the dust. Useless dust, impermanent, the very matter that all those bodies save Jesus’ would eventually decay into. Whatever He wrote in the temple dust would soon be swept away by the feet of those who departed in the wake of His response to them. For although Jesus was without sin, He elected to write in the dust rather than cast the first stone.
The elders left first, they knew their long lives were not blameless. This action was a counsel by which all of the others followed suit, even those who had come to be taught by Jesus. One by one, each departed as Jesus remained stooped over, still writing in the dust. No stones were cast, and finally, only He and the accused woman remained. He stood up and she confirmed no one had condemned her, and neither did He. Jesus sent her away from death’s door, with the suggestion she depart from the sinfulness that had brought her to Him that morning.
This was grace in action. Jesus granted mercy instead of engaging with people ready to kill her just so they could use that against Him. And in doing so, Christ offered a different kind of justice that demanded accountability from everyone. This justice system would mandate that each would carry the weight of only their own responsibility for their behavior and actions. It was not the answer the leaders were expecting. They had used the woman as a pawn in their chess game of entrapment, unjustly bringing her to the temple as if she was the singular transgressor. Only the woman was brought forth to be stoned, the man she had an affair with was nowhere to be seen. Incorrectly, the Pharisees and lawyers quoted the Law, but the directives written in Leviticus (20:10) and Deuteronomy state that both parties to adultery must be put to death. “You must purge the evil from Israel,” adds the 22nd verse of the 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy. Separately, the Roman rulers occupying Israel during Christ’s lifetime did not allow Jews to carry out their own executions (John 18:31).
Where in that temple in which they stood was the worshipful reverence that proclaimed God’s glory? Alas, even the temple would also be reduced to dust. Beyond this, Jesus suggested execution by others similarly stained by sin was not justice, but a perpetuation of sin. An unjust killing of this woman would not resolve the transgression or hold accountable the man who was also at fault. Jesus would not be party to any of that horrible scenario. Even He who was the best qualified to do so condemned her not. Like the others before her, He admonished her to change her habitual patterns that kept her enslaved to sin and subject to the ruthless political tactics employed by others far more powerful than she.
Jesus’ dedication was to God’s justice and will, not the machinations of those with vested interest who were eager to dismantle His influence by using this woman as a trap. This was a mockery of justice, and Jesus’ preoccupation with writing in the dust demonstrated how little He regarded their gravity. Instead, He directed each to their own self-examination, including her. How often do we jump to judgment of others without employing the same lens of scrutiny upon ourselves? How much do we disdain in others our very own shortcomings? Jesus granted the people in the temple to stop demonizing and naming others as “other.” He properly redirected all to take a look at their own lives as determination of whether they were truly qualified to condemn this fellow sinner to her death. And when He declined to condemn her as well, Jesus demonstrated that God is on the side of justice. His was a revolutionary act, a nonviolent salvo against corruption that ultimately spared her.
Had the Pharisees and men of law succeeded with ensnaring Jesus, how much greater would have been the woman’s shame and lament for her choices that led to such an unforeseen outcome. Instead, Jesus disarmed them all, and granted her grace as well as clemency. She was given reprieve, and was free to go and sin no more. Rather than being stoned, she was given a white stone with a new name on it, known only to her who receives it, as mentioned in Revelation 2:17. Yet even in this mercy, Jesus also granted her autonomy. It was up to her whether or not she would accept this purified stone. The choice was still hers: she could go and sin no more, or squander the grace that Christ had bequeathed. That offering to the disgraced woman who stood in the temple on death’s doorstep is the same offering that has never been withdrawn. We too have the choice to accept or reject it. Thanks be to God.
by Jennifer Delanty