The sun had barely cracked the eastern sky when she was dragged from her lover’s arms, the bliss of their forbidden relationship interrupted by some custodians of the law. The Pharisees and Scribes paraded the half-naked, humiliated, and terrified adulteress before Jesus as he taught there in that bastion of Torah – the temple in Jerusalem.
Made to stand in the middle of the crowd, hers was an open and shut case if ever there was one. She had been caught in the very act. And therefore, according to Moses, stone after skull-bashing stone was all that remained for her. But that day, she was a simple prop, a pawn, an excuse occasioning the actual trial about to begin.
“So what do you say (John 8:5)?” was the lead-off question put to Jesus by the prosecution, and a clever question it was indeed. If he agreed with Moses and the law, all talk of the kingdom of God drawing near because of him would cease. Sin, death, and the devil would continue to rage, leaving sinners with only themselves to combat these enemies. If he agreed with the law, the progeny of Adam and Eve would be forced to master their destiny, to ferret out some course of action in this old world. And, to hear the masters of the written code tell it, the tablets of stone lugged from Sinai’s heights are the best way to get God off one’s back.
Furthermore, if Jesus disagreed with Moses and the law, wouldn’t love of God and neighbor take a back seat to an unsavory dependence on mercy, grace, forgiveness, and perhaps worst of all, no self-governed course could ensure God treats a person “right”?
Surely that couldn’t be the case. Surely God is not an outlaw who doesn’t play by his own rules. If so, then what in the world is a person to do? Is salvation by the law or not? Moses or Jesus? Indeed, we find a fundamental parting of the ways put forward here, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
All this wasn’t lost on Jesus. He, too, knew what was at stake, and in response, he drew a line in the sand between the law and the gospel. How weird Jesus’ silence must have been for those demanding he render a verdict. How disconcerting his doodling in the sand must have been for those wondering what he was writing, especially when even unknown words scribbled in dirt have the uncanny ability to afflict a guilty conscience.
“Is he writing something about me? Did he see me do something? Did he hear me say something?” the prosecutorial team must have wondered. “Why does he just remain silent?” their consciences surely whined. “Say something, anything,” they no doubt wished as their nervous eyes darted about.
Of course, the only balm for a guilty conscience is justification, so the religious ones continued to pursue either claiming Jesus as a colleague or naming him a fraud. And it was only then that the one writing in the sand honored the request for fairness, justice, good order and discipline, proportionality, and love of God and neighbor. “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7),” Jesus stood and said before stooping again to continue that irritating writing in the dirt. And with his law-laden, lopsided, sixteen-word sermon, he exposed the hypocrisy of the ones playing “dodgeball” with the law.
God’s law is tamed by no one, including God, and just so it accomplishes exactly what he intends: for both the hypocrites and the adulteress, the ministry of death was complete. All were rightly judged, and all justly condemned. Every mouth was silenced, every hand stilled, and no recourse was offered.
But we must remember that line in the sand.
Let us never forget that line drawn by the one who also gave the earth and sea and sky their bounds, the one teaching the crowds in front of the temple that day, the one now standing again, but more importantly, the one now speaking! “Where are they? (John 8:10)” he asked that egregious violator of the sixth commandment. “Has no one condemned you? (John 8:10)” he pressed. “No one, Lord (John 8:11),” she had to confess as she looked around. “Neither do I condemn you (John 8:11),” he said. And so it was that the line in the sand held, the law was kept in its proper place, and that wonderfully good news, good news apart from the law, spilled out of the mouth of the one who has the last word about all things in both heaven above and on earth below.
“Go and from now on sin no more (John 8:11),” he offered as a parting shot. And how could she? What is sin but to deny that Jesus Christ has the final word, and with his word of forgiveness still ringing in her ears and that pile of rocks and her accuser’s footprints on the other side of that dusty line, such denial became impossible.
So it is for even lawbreakers like us. A font, an altar rail, and the big mouth of a sinful preacher form a historical, tactile, observable line that is Jesus’ last word about us. God does not lie, and when he promises to be with us always in the waters of baptism, when he feeds us his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sin when he uses the preacher’s mouth to spew our unconditional forgiveness yet again, his mercy and grace become undeniable–the line holds. “Neither do I condemn you” is the promise of Jesus Christ. It is undeniably for you. Now, go and sin no more!