Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter wore a red “A” for most of her adult life as penance for her sin of adultery. While Hester carried that public condemnation, her lover, the young minister Arthur Dimmesdale, suffered in secrecy and died in shame.
In Deuteronomy 22, the law stated that unfaithful wives should lose their lives, but the method was not prescribed. (The Mishnah specified strangling.) When an engaged woman was unfaithful, the woman and the man should be stoned. Consequently, many Bible commentators conclude that the woman in John 8 was engaged.
When the scribes and Pharisees arrived at the Temple, Jesus was teaching. They presented the woman caught in adultery, appealed to the law, and demanded a judgment. The case was fishy. Presumably, if they caught the woman, they also knew her partner. Where was he? Clearly, they were less concerned with justice and more interested in setting a snare for Jesus. Would He disregard the law and destroy His credibility? Or uphold the law and ruin His reputation of compassion? Forced to choose between justice and grace, what would Jesus do?
He stooped and wrote in the dirt. We don’t know what He wrote, but when Jesus did speak, He referenced Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7, which says the accusers of a crime should throw the first stones. Jesus added that they should be without sin. The scribes and Pharisees were silenced. One by one, they shuffled away. When they were gone, Jesus called her “Woman,” the same respectful term He used for His mother in John 2. Then He released her from condemnation, absolved her sin, and set her free.
>> The scribes and Pharisees reveal our own tendency to pass judgment and condemn. The woman shows our struggle with shame. Jesus shows us life-altering forgiveness and an opportunity for new life.
You alone understand the full depth and gravity of our sin. Yet You, who alone are qualified to pardon sin, are the most willing to forgive! Give us Your heart of compassionate forgiveness.