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“…Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.” – John 8:7
Often in the Gospel narratives, we read stories of how Jesus had to face unjust accusations made by the Pharisees and the Scribes. They were upset with Jesus’ teaching and they desperately wanted to discredit him in any way they could. They wanted not only to silence him, but to get rid of him because of his claim to speak with God’s authority. When a moral dilemma or difficult legal or religious question arose, it was typical for the Jews to take the matter to a rabbi for a decision.
In today’s Gospel account, the scribes and the Pharisees came to Jesus with a difficult moral question concerning a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. John writes that they wanted to “test” Jesus on the issue of retribution so “that they might have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:6). Jewish law treated adultery as a serious crime since it violated God’s ordinance and inflicts chaos on the stability of marriage and family life. It was one of the three gravest sins punishable by death. If Jesus said the woman must be pardoned, he would be accused of breaking the Law of Moses. If he said the woman must be stoned, he would lose his reputation for being the merciful friend of sinners.
Jesus then does something quite unexpected – he begins to write in the sand. Perhaps, as some scholars would suggest, Jesus was writing down a list of the sins of the accusers standing before him. By so doing, he turns the challenge towards his accusers. In effect he says: Go ahead and stone her! But let the man who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. The Lord leaves the matter to their own consciences.
Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman, rather he both expresses mercy and strongly exhorts her to not sin again. The scribes wished to condemn, Jesus wished to forgive and to restore the sinner to health. His challenge involved a choice – either to go back to her former way of sin and death or to reach out to God’s offer of forgiveness, restoration, and new life in his kingdom of peace and righteousness. Jesus gave her pardon and a new start on life.
God’s grace enables us to confront our sin for what it is, and to turn back to God with a repentant heart and a thankful spirit for God’s mercy and forgiveness. He does not want the death of a sinner, but wishes the sinner to be converted and live. In his wisdom, God understands our weakness, and in his mercy God forgives our sins. God not only helps us to put our sins behind us, but also to draw good from them. And surely, the fact that we all have sinned, and therefore stand continually in need of God’s mercy, will make us refrain from casting stones at others. There is no more important thing in life than compassion for a fellow human being.
Fr Odinaka Nwadike