Showing Mercy and Upholding the Law
“Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more’ ” (vv. 10–11).- John 8:7–11
Seeking to force Jesus either into denying the Mosaic law or into breaking with Roman law regarding capital punishment that they did not enjoy under Roman law, the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery before Him (John 7:53–8:5). This was not a fair legal proceeding, for the law called for the execution of both the man and the woman in cases of adultery (Lev. 20:10). Jesus stalled the accusers for a moment, bending down to write something (we do not know what) in the dirt (John 8:6).
Finally, as the religious authorities continued to press for an answer, Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). His response was masterful. He did not reject the Mosaic law and its prescribed punishment, for He called for a stone to be thrown. But He did not claim for the Jews any right to contravene the laws of their Roman occupiers. If they were ready to enforce the law, the qualified accuser should go first.
Jesus was not saying that one must be perfectly sinless in order to bring a legal accusation against another person. In capital cases, witnesses had to be absolutely sure of the accused’s guilt; otherwise, if the accused were innocent, the accuser would receive the punishment the accused would deserve (Deut. 19:15–21). Given that the religious authorities here applied justice selectively and wanted only to trap Jesus, they almost certainly had not followed the process required in Jewish law to confirm what they had seen when they found the woman in sin. They were not without sin in this case, and if there were any doubt about the woman’s guilt, they ought to have refrained from stoning her lest the same punishment fall on them when it was discovered they had not followed procedure. So, the accusers all went away because they had all failed (John 8:8–9).
Also, when Jesus showed the woman mercy and told her to go and sin no more, He was not denying the law (vv. 10–11). Although the old covenant law prescribed execution for many crimes, judges could accept a ransom in place of death in certain cases (Ex. 21:28–32). Only in the case of murder could a ransom not be accepted (Num. 35:31). So, execution was the stiffest penalty for adultery, but it was not mandatory. Moreover, by the time the woman spoke to Jesus, all the accusers had left, and without a witness to the sin, there could be no trial or punishment. Still, it was gracious for Jesus to let her go, for He certainly knew her guilt.
While God’s people are to be concerned with justice, we must also be willing to show mercy. If we are never merciful, it may prove that we have not understood God’s mercy to us. Justice is vital, and in God’s economy it is not finally opposed to mercy, but in our pursuit of justice, we must be eager to show mercy when it is appropriate to do so.
Passages for Further Study