I'm afraid we have overemphasized "Go and sin no more!" at the expense of "...neither do I condemn you." Which may be, in part, why I find the story of The Woman Caught in Adultery to be so fascinating. In case you're not familiar with the story John presents us, here it goes:
"Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
What about this story is so fascinating? Perhaps we need to ask a better question. What, about this story, isn't fascinating?
For just a moment, picture this with me. You're sitting at the feet of, arguably, the most captivating speaker the world has ever heard. He's giving insight, the likes of which are so simple they are profound. Half-way through the discourse walks in a gang of men, dragging a sobbing woman through the dirt behind them. I think it's safe to assume that, at this point, they have your full attention. With all eyes on him, the leader of these men takes it upon himself to address the crowd. He rambles on about how she was caught in adultery, so it's only right they brought her in to carry out her punishment.
Wait a minute! What? She was caught in adultery? As in, she was caught in the act? By them? All of them? And they choose to air this, and carry out her punishment right here? Right now? Was it really necessary to interrupt Jesus' teaching in the temple? For this? Aren't these kind of issues taken care of a little more discreetly? And where is the man they caught her with during all of this?
To me, this whole situation seems a bit suspect. Was this some sort of trap? Obviously John thinks it is; which is why he plainly tells us "They were trying to trap him..."? Him, as in Jesus. Truth be told, these hypocritical accusers aren't really seeking Jesus' opinion on the matter; they have already made up their mind. Why else would they distance themselves from and dehumanized her by referring to her as "this woman"? The Pharisees knew full well that Levitical law requires she be put to death for her sin. However, Roman law didn't allow the Jews to carry out their own executions. As you can see, Jesus is in a lose-lose situation. If he favors on the side of the religious leaders, they will likely report Jesus to the Roman authorities. If he favors on the side of the adulterous woman, they will accuse him of breaking Levitical law (and enabling her sin).
Yet none of this seems to take Jesus by surprise. Through the whole incident, he remains calm, cool and collected. He doesn't chastise them for interrupting, as I would have done. Neither does he ask them for details to determine her guilt in order that he may suggest the proper punishment. Instead, Jesus responds in the same way he so often does. He stops what he is doing, assesses the situation and offers a challenge for her accusers--any one of them without sin may cast the first stone. All while writing in the sand. Now, there are several theories as to what he was writing--some say the sins of her accusers, others believe he just drew a line. Whatever it was isn't really important; clearly, Jesus makes his point. One by one they drop their stones and walk away. There you have it! In one simple exchange, Jesus diffuses the entire situation and sends away the judgmental sinners.
Even after they are gone, do you notice how Jesus doesn't ask her for an admission of guilt? He doesn't ask if she's sorry for what she has done. It seems Jesus, and perhaps more importantly this woman, both know she's guilty. I mean, it's pretty obvious as she was caught in the act. Therefore, there's no need to harp on her sin. It's unnecessary to make a bigger spectacle of "this woman," further humiliating and dehumanizing her. Which is why, I get the sense that Jesus doesn't really condemn her. In his vast wisdom, Jesus knows that his condemnation will only further alienate her from the saving grace she desperately needs.
Contrary to what many in the Church would have you believe, I don't think this seems to be a case study in "loving the sinner, but hating the sin." Why not you ask? As I've already mentioned, Jesus doesn't even really address her sin. For him, it seems to be more of an afterthought. Not only is it the last thing he says--"Go and sin no more."--but the only other time it's recorded that Jesus uses this phrase is with the man at the pool of Bethesda. And if you're familiar with that story, we have no indication that his sin lead to his paralysis. And if you look closer, you see that Jesus actually asks this man to sin, by carrying his mat on the Sabbath, after he is healed. Which, to put it bluntly, pisses off some of the Jews. Could it be that Jesus' admonition to "Sin no more." is a jab directed at the religious leaders? That Jesus is telling them if they don't quit their sinning, the sin police will have them killed. And Jesus might not be there next time to save them? Either way, it's unfortunate that this is the only take away for so many in the church--as though Jesus really expects them to be perfect from here on out. It's not like he said that to all the others he healed!
Which brings me to what I most love about this story--what I most love about Jesus--his relentless love and compassion toward sinners. In his vast wisdom, Jesus chooses to extend grace (instead of judgment and condemnation) and spare her life. All in an effort to emphasize his great respect for this woman and her dignity, which not even her sin can take away! Pope John Paul II commented on this story that "They (the Pharisees) intend[ed] to show that his teaching on God's merciful love contradicts the Law." It seems that not much has changed since the days of Jesus.
The sad reality for many outside the church is that, so often, we are still looking to prove Jesus' teaching on God's merciful love is contradictory to the Law. What other reason do we have for drawing the arbitrary lines we do? (The ones of which we, of course, find ourselves on the right side). Why else would we wait around the corner to condemn their "ungodly" acts? Is there any other reason we readily judge those that sin differently from us? Paul, in Romans 2, tells us this is not a good practice. "You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?"
That you are a sinner whom should sin no more isn't a gospel worth sharing. I believe we already know this, just as the woman caught in adultery knew this! Why then have we forgotten that truth? Have we forgotten it was God's grace, not his judgment, that lead us to repentance? Let me say that again. We are repentant because of the compassion, love and forgiveness, not the condemnation, we have received.
Now, I'm not advocating we condone sin. Nor do I believe that is the message of Jesus. But perhaps his message is that we should be slow to judge, quick to extend compassion, and ready to offer forgiveness. Afterall, that's what he did! While this is never an easy task, this story is a clear example of how we are supposed to live as those that have received, or rather embraced, that same grace. To, again, quote Pope John Paul II "...Christian forgiveness is not synonymous with mere tolerance, but implies something more demanding." He goes on to say, "There is a need for Christian forgiveness, which instills hope and trust without weakening the struggle against evil. There is a need to give and receive mercy."