Let us take a close look at the story of the woman taken in adultery. The first thing to note is that she is guilty. Jewish Law provided a high standard of proof for this crime – two witnesses at least. As adultery is rarely a collective act, that made it difficult to prove. But here, although we are not told how it was so, we are told she was ‘taken in adultery’ No wonder the Pharisees thought they had Jesus this time – by the Law of Moses there was one punishment alone for this act – stoning to death. We do not know what it was Jesus wrote upon the ground, but we do know his words: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
Now let us examine this. If Jesus were laying down a general proposition here for how all malefactors should be dealt with, he would have been laying down a recipe for chaos; if only those not guilty of sin could judge the sinner, than, since we are all sinners, no one would ever judge anyone; this, of course, suits the temper of our times – which is why we must insist that there is, here, no general advice about how to run your legal system. If we want to understand what is going on here, we have to read what Jesus said to the women when the shamefaced would-be stone-throwers had departed. He asked her whether any of them had condemned her, and when she said they had not, he said: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
The attentive reader will have noticed that Jesus has switched from the language of punishment to the verdict – from stoning to action. But we knew what the vedict had to be – she was guilty, after all. Our Lord is sinless, so by his own words he could, indeed, have cast the first stone. But here we have passed beyond the world of the courts and the police and the judges. The woman is where we all shall be one day – alone with the judge of the universe. He says: “go and sin no more”. He is speaking to us all. Can she do it? Can we?
We know that this ‘Johannine comma’ is not in most of the earlest texts, and that none of the Greek Fathers quoted it. It is not hard to see why this should have been so. On the assumption that, canonised by the Church, it is genuine, it is a very difficult text from which to preach hell-fire and damnation. How can the law be kept if only the sinless can execute it? What on earth will the pastoral consequences be if adulterers think they can ‘go and sin no more’ and escape condemnation?
Jesus knew how the woman would be forgiven in the end, as he knows how we shall be forgiven. It is for us that he hung and suffered on the Cross. The same blood that redeems her, redeems me and you. We can try to sin no more – but we cannot do it, any more than we can be saved by our own efforts. Christ alone saves.