An adulterous test case.

I am not a lawyer: at times I have had to interact with the court system as an expert or a litigant. One of the things I have observed is that lawyers and judges pay great attention to the meaning of laws and to precedent.

At least in the Anglosphere, this common or judge-made law includes such things as admissibility of evidence, and is modified at times by legislation (but the the legislation is interpreted by the courts.

Now, in this incident, the Pharisees and bringing a test case. The law said that any charge required two or three witnesses. They had found this women in the act of adultery. (The law says that both partners shall be condemned: it was not just the woman that is at risk).

What the Pharisees were doing was taking what to them was a water tight case and seeing what this teacher would say — to see if he taught against the law. It was not a test case of the law, It was a test of Jesus.


John 7:53-8:11


53Then each of them went home, 1while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

What Jesus did was take a legal case and make it a teaching incident. He taught by confronting — if you were without any sin — if there was nothing in your life that would place you next to this woman awaiting death — then go ahead.

But everyone had something in their lives.

And everyone left.

Jesus could have then legally continued. He instead chose mercy.

[Now it would be an error to presume on that mercy. This was a teaching case, not a test case. Jesus ministry was to save all from the death they deserved (as do we) and we was clear as to the prime directive — and showed mercy. But you cannot interpret this to say that adultery is OK or that it should not be taken seriously].

Now, we have a tendency to think like lawyers. Most of us do not know the law, and we need someone to interpret it. There is a branch of law — canon law — which is about due process and church discipline. However, if we listen completely to the lawyers we will forget our prime directive. Which is to be the witnesses of Christ.

And use failure as a teaching moment, to allow mercy, but to maintain the standards of the law. Now, at times that means praying with and supporting people in prison as the law punishes them for crimes they have committed: this requires judgment, true, and discernment, true.

But we cannot leave these things as completely driven by some form of legal technique. Because if we do that, we are again the Pharisees.