In the discussion that surrounded the death of Sadaam Hussein on this site, Stephen and I had some interesting conversation regarding the death penalty. One story, in particular– the woman caught in adultery– got me thinking in different ways, especially as I thought about what Stephen had to say and I looked through the passage regarding my argument.
You see, I believe that the item that would break this story wide open would be if we knew for certain what Jesus was writing in the sand. What we do know is that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus– as was their normal habit at this time in Jesus’ ministry– by giving him what they thought were “no-win” situations. Jesus handled many of these with ease (including the famous “give unto Caesar what is Caesars, but unto God the things that are God’s).
We know that there had to be witnesses to the adultery in order for this woman to be stoned. We also know (since Joseph was going to exercise this option with Mary) that an adulterous wife need not be killed– she could have just been “put away.” So there’s something in this story that we don’t know about how the Pharisees knew that this woman was guilty.
However, the focus is usually placed on Jesus’ command. Knowing that this woman had sinned, Jesus pardoned her– eventually. Please notice with me the order of events. (John 8:7ff) In between His writing on the ground, He states “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone.” He writes something, and the Pharisees leave with a prick of conscience. He then tells her that since there are no accusers, He does accuse her, and she is to go and sin no more.
Notice, Jesus nowhere says that the woman should not be stoned. He says that He has the power to forgive sin, but His command to “pick up the stones” revealed that He believes that the punishment is death– or does He? See why I say the question lies in what He was writing?
What sins or things could He have been writing that would cause the Pharisees to leave with a problem of conscience, and what can we really take away from this about Jesus without knowing that key bit of information? I don’t know that we can take this as a definitive account of what Jesus thinks of Capital Punishment, but I do believe that we can be certain that where we see rules and laws, God sees the person.
I think that, more than anything, John the Apostle wanted us to take away from this event not whether it was right for the woman to die, but that Jesus reached past the law to reach a person– just like He reached past sin in our lives to minister and claim us, since we all deserve death. I think it’s an admonition to us that like to live life “by the book” that we don’t always have to be harsh– but can find other ways to navigate the circumstance to find a better way.