Be careful not to filter Jesus’ actions through our current, faulty thinking. Examine what he did and said on its own merits. Otherwise, we may corrupt the message. The eternal Lord is immune to trendy thinking.
When the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman “caught in adultery” (John 8:4, NKJV), they committed a sinful act that shouldn’t be used for our own selfish purposes.
John tells us they intended to discredit Jesus (John 8:6). This wasn’t an honest theological inquiry. Leviticus 20:10 states that both partners in an adulterous union should be stoned. Would Jesus violate the law of God and ruin his influence before the people?
While they berated Jesus, he began writing on the ground. What he wrote likely had nothing to do with the story. Standing he said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7).
Returning to the ground, the accusers eventually faded into the darkness. Unlike Solomon’s great dilemma of the two mothers and the baby (1 Kings 3:16-28), this wasn’t merely wisdom.
Jesus, being God (John 1:1-5), knew their hearts and motives. We may be able to ascertain them by intellect but we’ll never have Jesus’ insight.
Jesus wasn’t practicing situation ethics where he ignored the Law as it suited him. The “without sin” in 8:7 and the “sin no more” (8:11) verify that Jesus accepted her sin. We can’t ignore the commands of God to help someone or make them feel better.
The truth of God is timeless and immune to trends or preferences (Psalm 119:89).
Jesus also didn’t practice zero tolerance.
“A policy of punishing any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances” [Wikipedia].
Zero Tolerance is slowly crippling our society. It allows a computer button power over hearts, intents and situations. It’s mindless punishment and it’s dangerous. Zero tolerance executes on the spot and refuses to appraise the context.
Situation ethics looks for any excuse to absolve them and our own weak hearts from responsibility. Somewhere in between, we find Jesus and a woman caught in a nightmare.
Regardless of her sin, they had no right to treat her this way. Jesus decimated the plot against him, acknowledged her sin, uncovered theirs (“he who is without sin” is likely evidence they were guilty of the same sin) and established the need for holiness.
This brilliant and nuanced story is a powerful reminder of the need for holiness and honesty. Yet, we corrupt the Lord’s work when we use this tale as a pretense to display our own sinful attitudes.
Life is far too complex for zero tolerance and God’s truth is too rigid for situation ethics. Instead, let’s study and arm ourselves with knowledge and compassion so we can maintain holiness and wisdom in dealing with difficult situations.