jesus, the sinless one

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?’

(vv. 2-5)

Jesus Martinez's portrait of the woman caught in adultery.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.

(v. 6)

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.

(vv. 7-8)

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.

(v. 9)

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.’

(vv. 10-11)

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.’

(v. 11)

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. 

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2 responses to “jesus, the sinless one

  1. Jenny Hernandez

    it’s somewhat questionable that you read this story in the context of the gospel of John’s theme of sinlessness and Christ’s judgment – since this story cannot be found in any of the early transcripts of the gospel and seems to be an addition to the gospel…still, whether or not in the context of the gospel, it’s powerful message speaks to us all – that true righteousness does not equal condemnation on others.
    But your comment, “it is not until Jesus says his final words that we are able to relax..” Relax? This line could mean to imply that though we all know of all our own personal sins, we can “relax” bc apparently we will not be judged…is this what we should take from the story?? We can relax? Jesus says it’s ok???? And why were we tense in the first place? We care about all the sins that we do and hold our breath bc we are afraid of judgment and when we realize we will not be judged, we can exhale and not reflect and contemplate on our transgressions? I know this is not what you are implying, but I think the word choice of “relax” does suggest that we care about our transgressions bc of fear of judgment. But I do not want to care about my sins because of fear – I want to care about them bc in doing so, I have not lived a life of love, of true fulfillment – i have compromised the very purpose of existence – to live a life of love and unity with God and the kingdom. I have settled and compromised true life. And I won’t “relax” – but I will continue to daily struggle with my sinful nature and pursue a life that is lived to the fullest and living out its true purpose.
    Jesus, the sinless one, forgave the adulterous woman, but what did Jesus say afterwards? “…and from now on do not sin again.” but undoubtedly the woman will sin again (whether or not Jesus meant the particular sin of adultery is unclear from the text)…and undoubtedly Jesus will forgive her again. But the woman and her sin (though the sin is part of who she is, we can’t really separate the two) will continue to frustrate the life we are called to live…and our sin will do the same…and we will struggle, day in and day out…i feel no relaxation in such a thought, nor do i want to. i’m probably conflating “relax” with “complacency” when I shouldn’t be…but I fear such is the nature of much of contemporary Christian thought today…

    ..these are just my free-flowing thoughts…i don’t know if they completely make sense…but there you go..

  2. Wow. Thanks for engaging with the post, Jenny.

    I think I meant “relax” loosely, in the context of the act of reading the story—not in the context of spiritual growth and the Christian life. The point of this reflection was to bring the drama out of each line; to allow every word and gesture of Jesus a chance to shine in a different light, a light that might accentuate features that remain hidden in other interpretive lenses. So we can “relax” or “let go of” (re + laxo, laxare = “to open or unloose”) the tension that had built up around the scenario in vv. 7-9.

    But to take your criticisms more seriously, I think it is legitimate to care about our sins for fear of judgment. That’s called taking God’s justice seriously. Moreover, what is merciful about God’s mercy if it is not remittance of condemnation? And how ought we to feel about the condemnation of God if not afraid?

    Now, I know as well as anyone that it will not do to juxtapose God’s justice and God’s mercy in simple competition. However, in John’s Gospel just as much as in the Synoptics (cf. John 5:19-29; Mark 9:42-48 and parallel passages), the picture of Jesus we get is steeped in tones of judgment just as it is equally steeped in tenderness (see, most famously, Jesus’ blessing of the little children in Mark 10:13-16 and parallel passages; also, Jesus’ tears as he learns of the death of Lazarus in John 11:28-37).

    It’s popular today to scorn fear as a motivator for noble actions. Maybe there’s something to that. But fearing God seems to me to be a solidly biblical endeavor. After all, is is not written that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7)?

    You might say, “True enough. But there are many reasons to fear God other than ones grounded in fear of God’s judgment. For example, we fear God because he made us.”

    But what is the corollary of God’s making us? That he could destroy us. See, it is awful that God made us precisely because it entails that God’s power extends to our (potential) unmaking. Saying “Creator God” is tantamount to saying “Destroyer God”—because the power is one and the same.

    And what is destruction but the execution of a judgment against one—a word of condemnation wrought physically?

    OK. Let me step back a minute. You want to ground our motivation for spiritual progress not in fear of judgment, but in desire for “true fulfillment.” I think there is a lot to be said for this. There is a lot of theology being done around the concept of “human flourishing” as a core intention of God’s, and therefore as a motivator for one’s embrace of the Gospel, which—in this reading—turns out to be the best handbook for human flourishing. (It almost sounds like a kind of self-help ploy…)

    But do you know anyone who believes this? I mean, really believes it in their core and conducts their life by it to the “T.” What are their devotional lives like? Better, what are their emotional lives like? Do they have inner peace?

    I find that folks who live by this are both the most service-oriented folks and the most restless (spiritually) folks. On the one hand, they serve in soup kitchens and donate to charities and teach GED courses to prison inmates; but on the other hand, they are restless. Their acts of service don’t give them real peace. Instead, they perform them anxiously, as if looking to them for justification—justification that ought to come from a word of absolution, heard in the wake of a word of condemnation.

    See, if the problem is that we aren’t reaching our full potential as humans, then God would have sent us a mere role model, an exemplary human. Then it would be up to us to mold ourselves to the ideal. (There’s even a way you can fit a theology of grace into this framework.)

    But that’s not what he sent. He sent a Savior. So we have to confront what it means to be saved from something—something really terrible, like God’s judgment. How else could we use the term “reconciliation” (Rom. 5:10-11; 2 Cor. 5:18-20)? It’s not “reconciliation” when Jesus merely helps me to “live a life of love and unity with God and the kingdom.” It’s reconciliation when we were once the enemies of God—and are now his precious children (see also Col. 1:19-22).

    Yes, there is the possibility of deep, spiritual relaxation. But it’s a relaxation grounded in the promise of God in Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” To trust in anything else would be to mock this promise. And yet, only from this wellspring does the possibility of spiritual growth arise. Renewal and revival occur precisely because we believe God’s righteous judgment against us in the midst of his merciful word of absolution—not one in spite of the other.

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