Jesus is teaching in the Temple, and attracts a huge crowd, but the Scribes and the Pharisees are out to get him, so they catch this poor woman and drag her into the Temple and force her to stand in front of the crowd in order to catch Jesus in an act of heresy so they can kill him. It’s shocking because first of all these so-called religious leaders are planning to kill someone, and second, they are going to kill someone right there in the holy sanctuary. They announce that they caught this woman in the act of adultery, but notice that the man who would have also committed adultery was not brought forward. That’s because women were not considered fully human by these sexist, patriarchal men. Women were blamed by men for the problems of men, and the only solution was capital punishment, the death penalty, in the name of God, right there in the house of God.
But Jesus does something totally shocking. He bends down and starts writing on the ground. They’re ready to murder someone, and he acts like he ignores them. I believe that Jesus was the most disarming person who ever lived, that he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, that he was perfectly compassionate and completely peaceful, and the very act of bending down and writing on the ground in the face of a hostile mob was disarming because it literally drew their attention away from their anger to his writing and they must have thought: “What is he doing? Doesn’t he know we are about to kill this sinful woman? Why doesn’t he answer us?” If he had shouted at them or engaged them in theological argument, they probably would have stoned the woman to death. But his slow, patient, quiet drawing opens a space for them to hear his answer. He changes the focus of attention from their righteous indignation to his scribbling and distracts them so they can hear his answer. This is how the nonviolent Jesus disarms them.
Finally he stands up and issues one of the greatest commandments of the Bible: “Let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone.” He not only condemns the death penalty, he points out the sinfulness within each one of us, and disarms our righteous revenge and our intent to kill. And according to Mosaic law, if anyone witnesses an act of adultery, they too were guilty and should be condemned to death. The elders remember this and are ashamed and walk away first. Jesus actually saves not only the woman, but the lives of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Suddenly the whole Temple is empty, the entire crowd has left, and Jesus is alone with the woman, and he engages her in conversation and treats her with respect. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one,” she says. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” So what do we learn from this?
First, “let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone.” In other words, if you are sinless, you are permitted to condemn others, throw stones, hurt people, and kill people, but if you are a sinner, then you are not allowed to hurt or kill anyone ever again. And the truth is we’re all sinners, and so we’re all loved and forgiven, but that means we are not allowed to hit anyone, hurt anyone, kill anyone, shoot a gun, electrocute people on death row, abort unborn children, support war, or make nuclear weapons. All that is forbidden. From now on, we have been permanently disarmed by Jesus. Like Jesus, we are people of nonviolence.
Second, by not condemning the woman, Jesus reveals a whole new image of God, a God who does not condemn. Instead of condemning us, God has mercy on us. Instead of seeking revenge against us, God has compassion on us. Instead of hating us, God loves us infinitely and defends us. Jesus sides with the condemned and then he gets condemned and becomes one of the condemned, dying on the cross, and yet he never condemns anyone. He forgives us and calls us to forgive and show mercy and compassion to everyone. It’s hard, but this is the way of God, and it has to become our way too. We’ve been let off the hook and so we have to let everyone else off the hook, too. With this Gospel, we have to work to abolish the death penalty, war, nuclear weapons and every form of violence.
Next week is Palm Sunday and we’ll hear the passion of Jesus, so we might reflect this week about who we want to throw stones at, who we want to condemn, how Jesus is disarming us, how Jesus is saving our lives, and how we too might follow him on the way of compassionate, nonviolent love, the way of the cross.