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?” (John 8.9-10)
Not Her Story
The story of the adulterous woman reminds me of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), in which a young bride cowers in the shadow of her husband's late wife, for whom the movie is named. Here, the adulteress is the title character, but the tale isn’t about her. She’s the reason the scribes and Pharisees collide with Jesus. And by the end, they too cower in her shadow. Yet she doesn’t really do anything. She’s brought to Jesus to tempt Him—not in the carnal sense, but to see if He’ll exert authority He technically doesn’t have. It’s supposed to be a lose-lose for Him. Either He condemns the woman to die by stoning, as the Law dictates, or He pardons her, with both judgments exceeding His right. But there’s a third option His adversaries never consider: He can throw the whole mess back into their hands and challenge them to condemn her. He invites anyone who’s never sinned to throw the first stone, tying their hands and sparing the woman’s life. After they slink away, Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, Sir.” Three words—that’s all we hear from her. “Then neither do I,” Jesus says and sends her off with a gentle warning not to sin again.
It's not her story. But we want it to be. We want to identify with her in some way because, however that is, we come out ahead. If see her as unjustly accused—which she’s not; she’s been with someone other than her rightful spouse—maybe we won’t feel so bad when we’re caught doing something contemptible. At times like that, Jesus’s “nobody’s perfect” answer proves mighty handy. If we see her as a victim—which she’s not; she voluntarily exposes herself to condemnation—maybe we can fall back on a victim mentality when we fail. We’re able to empathize with the woman because she’s a cipher. Beyond her infidelity, we know nothing about her. Is she a sex addict? A home wrecker? An unhappy wife looking for love? Did she actually commit this sin? John tells us she was “caught.” But caught how? Did someone burst in on her and her lover? Maybe her neighbors noticed something unusual going on, put two and two together, and what they concluded isn’t what it is. Knowing so little about her, we’re free to project anything we like on her.
Eagerness to Accuse
One supposes that would be okay if the story were about her. But it’s not. It’s about her accusers. To get to the story’s kernel, we have to enter it from their side, which we’d rather not, because they’re a reprehensible lot. They don’t consult Jesus privately about what should be done with the woman. No, they drag her into the Temple where He’s teaching and charge her openly. Remember, they’re gunning for Jesus, not the woman. Her feelings and reputation—her very life—are inconsequential to them. She’s simply a prop in their filthy little drama. Then, when Jesus throws a wrench in the works, they wander off, one by one. They’re humiliated by their arrogance, yet no more sensitized to it than when they started. They don’t apologize to Jesus or the woman. They don’t ask either’s forgiveness. They don’t acknowledge that in their haste to prove a point, they’ve sacrificed their dignity and credibility. They’re trapped in this woman’s shadow and the best they can do is walk away. John offers no hint they’ve learned their lesson. Which, apparently, they haven’t. They’re back at it in the next chapter, trying to twist a blind man’s healing into proof that Jesus isn’t from God. (John 9.16)
This story is about our eagerness to accuse. We can read all we’d like into it. Yet no matter how we spin it, we won’t come out looking good. It speaks to every impulse we have to polish our reputations at others’ expense. We may try to throw Jesus a curve ball that (we think) gives Him no option besides agreeing with us—proving our point, as it were. We may think nothing of hauling those we don’t like into the court of public opinion, assuming the crowd will side with us and ratify our self-righteousness. We may try to put words in Jesus’s mouth to justify our arrogance and deceit. But in the end, we will fail miserably, because Jesus always finds a way to bring our motives to light. The issue never revolves around whether our accusations are accurate or deserved. The question is whether we’re exempt from blame for wrongs we’ve committed. Jesus need not tell us we’re no better than anyone else. After He tosses the whole mess back into our hands, we can figure that out on our own.