The sinlessness of Jesus is an interesting belief. But as with most doctrines, it is difficult to appreciate until it is seen in action, performing work of some kind. This might occur in a few different contexts: in devotional life, in constructive theology, in scriptural interpretation—even in ecclesial formation. (For instance, what ought the Church look like given that her Head is one without sin?)
Reading John’s gospel the other day, it occurred to me that the sinlessness of Jesus does an important thing when brought to bear on the passage about the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11). Namely, it brings out the incredible drama of this scene. Let me explain.
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes the and Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commands us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’
Jesus is in the temple, teaching. Some folks come in and want to know what to do with a woman caught in adultery. Immediately, the context for Jesus’ reaction is sin and its consequences for the community.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
There have been many attempts to decode the significance of this gesture. The best (and safest) explanation I have heard is that whatever Jesus was writing, the act as a whole served to take the attention off of the woman—who was, scholars agree, most likely naked. This small act of compassion foreshadows the next, more spectacular one. But before Jesus pronounces his judgment on the case, he asks those who brought the woman to judge themselves.
‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
Here the dramatic tone rises. Not only is it clear that no one—not even the Pharisees—is without sin, but also, as John’s readers surely remember, Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). In keeping with the passover symbolism, this means that Jesus is “without blemish,” or sinless.
So Jesus’ words cut both ways. On the one hand, they effectively ward off the woman’s accusers: “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (v. 9). On the other hand, however, the woman—and John’s readers—are faced with the reality that Jesus, being sinless, has the right and the authority to stone her. When we tune in to this fact, John’s masterful storytelling becomes clear. Consider his next line:
and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
The suspense has settled in. Jesus, the only one who “hath no sin,” stands ready to condemn this sinful woman at his behest. John’s readers instinctively ask themselves—”Might Jesus condemn her? Might he stone her?” Listen to the trepidation in the woman’s voice:
Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’
It is not until Jesus finally gives his pronouncement that we are able to relax. And in his words we receive grace and forgiveness and blessing, just as the woman in the story did that day.
And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
Reading Scripture with attention to a specific doctrine is not only a way to read Scripture “with the Church.” It is also a way to tap into the bloodline of Scripture, unveiling the drama that lies just beneath the surface.