There is an insatiable desire for most people when it comes to crime stories.
From the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to Watergate, the Manson murders, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the death of JonBenet Ramsey, the O.J. Simpson trial, the case against Heidi Fleiss, the conviction of Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault and rape, the acquittal of Casey Anthony for the death of her daughter, Kaylee, to the most recent Alex Murdaugh trial in South Carolina.
Whether it involves murder, kidnapping, destruction of evidence, sexual assault, or violence, we can’t help but be intrigued by it all. Our choice of television shows and docuseries covering crimes and the criminals behind them are endless. Our fervor increases when we find someone with whom to discuss our thoughts, beliefs, and theories. Especially when we can talk with someone else who shares a passionate interest in a particular crime story. True crime stories have a way of creating sides and highlighting differing opinions as to guilt or innocence.
150 million people were all doing the same thing on October 3, 1995.[i] They had all turned on their television sets to hear the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. 150 million people stopped what they were doing to see what the jury had decided. After an eight-month trial, many of us were invested in the outcome. Most everyone had formed an opinion and were anxious to see if the jury agreed.
There seems to be a psychological reason that we are so fascinated by true crime stories. Experts agree that the number one factor is this: We’re curious about what drives people to do the unthinkable.[ii] I do believe this is the number one reason for most of us. We are intrigued more so by the mind of the criminal rather than the crime itself. Most of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens and can’t fathom finding ourselves as the focal point of a criminal investigation. So, when a famous athlete, a powerful film producer, or a local well-connected attorney finds themselves posing for a mug shot, we can’t help but wonder, “How did they get from where they were to where they are?”
Let’s face it. We read about these stories, we watch the trials on television, we read the comments on social media, and we discuss the evidence or the lack thereof amongst friends and family members. We take what we know about a case and decide guilt or innocence, as well as the severity of a punishment that we deem, is deserved. Major crime stories provide us with much to talk about, much to speculate on, and even more to judge. It’s entertaining and intriguing. That is until the crime story hits too close to home.
When the crime becomes personal, we look at it differently. We look at the accused differently. We scrutinize the evidence more closely and intimately. Our passion for the truth and for proper judgment is certainly more alive when we are directly affected by a crime.
Let’s set the scene for today’s scripture. Division among the people hearing Jesus is getting more and more intense. John 7:42 CEV “ The Scriptures say that the Messiah will come from the family of King David. Doesn’t this mean that he will be born in David’s hometown of Bethlehem?” 43 The people started taking sides against each other because of Jesus. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him.”
The religious leaders gathered, and Nicodemus speaks up. John 7:50 – 8:2 CEV “ Nicodemus was there at the time. He was a member of the council, and was the same one who had earlier come to see Jesus. He said, 51 “Our Law doesn’t let us condemn people before we hear what they have to say. We cannot judge them before we know what they have done.”
52 Then they said, “Nicodemus, you must be from Galilee! Read the Scriptures, and you will find that no prophet is to come from Galilee.”
53 Everyone else went home, but Jesus walked out to the Mount of Olives. 2 Then early the next morning he went to the temple. The people came to him, and he sat down and started teaching them.”
Chapter 8 of John tells us that a crime in Jerusalem was reported.
John 8:3 “ 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”
All of us have wondered, “Where was the man?” If she had been caught in adultery as it was claimed, she could not have been alone, so how did the man escape capture? But more disturbing is how she was caught in the act of adultery. Nowadays, there are multiple ways in which a person is caught “red-handed”. Cameras, videos, taped recordings, text messages, pings from a person’s cellphone, and even a person’s number of steps taken during a particular point in time can easily incriminate someone accused of a crime. The phrase red-handed originated in the 15th century in Scotland. It was a phrase used when a person was caught poaching an animal or literally in the act of murdering another person. The term “red-handed” referenced the blood on the person’s hands.
In today’s scripture, this woman was supposedly caught red-handed and I think it’s not unreasonable to assume she was set up. In those days, two witnesses were required to proceed with any kind of prosecution. Those two witnesses had to agree completely on what they saw. At the risk of being graphic, these two witnesses would have had to literally see the sexual act and not just the two people being unclothed and in bed. There could be no circumstantial evidence. There had to be two eyewitness accounts. Therefore, as you can imagine, people caught in the actual act of adultery were not a common occurrence. (Case in point – David and Bathsheba. It was assumed by some that adultery had taken place, but there were no eyewitnesses.) The woman in today’s scripture is considered to have been used simply as a pawn to entrap Jesus.
The scribes and Pharisees present this woman to Jesus and reference one of the laws of Moses as the basis for their actions. Mosaic laws consisted of 613 differing laws.[iii] The Mosaic laws are spread throughout the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Numbers. All of the laws fell into one of three categories. Either they were considered moral laws, civil or judicial laws, or ceremonial laws.[iv] Obviously adultery falls under moral laws. Leviticus 20:10 ERV “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Was she guilty? We assume that she was. After all, we are told that she was “caught in the act”. It just so happens that Jesus, Who has gotten under the skin of the religious leaders and has a target on His back, is in town when this crime was committed and witnessed. The person was caught red-handed. The law couldn’t be any clearer. So, they ask Him. “What do you say about her?” Perfect scenario for the religious leaders. A trap for Jesus. And a deadly predicament for the woman.
Instead of a parable or a response that seems ambiguous to them, Jesus bends down and writes with His finger on the ground. Instead of asking the woman if what they say is true, Jesus lowers Himself and begins to write. Verse 7 tells us that they continued to ask Him. Over and over. “What’s the matter, Jesus? You don’t have anything to say this time?” “Are you just ignoring us?” “Don’t you agree with the laws of Moses?” The taunting, and the bullying, were all done at the expense of this woman but primarily done for the purpose of humiliating Jesus.
One of the great mysteries is what Jesus wrote in the sand. There are many speculations, of course, but we cannot know for sure. One common belief is that He was writing Jeremiah 17:3 HCSB “ My mountains in the countryside.
I will give up your wealth
and all your treasures as plunder
because of the sin of your high places
in all your borders.”
If this is what Jesus wrote, this would have been a dig at the rampant sinfulness that existed right there. Another belief is that Jesus was listing the secret sins of the religious leaders. The wrongdoings they piously excused away. Or perhaps He was listing discrepancies in their obedience to the laws. After all, just right before this, Nicodemus had reminded them their law prevented them from condemning someone before they were allowed to speak on their behalf. It would seem that this adulterous woman had not been given that opportunity.
Because, you see, the crowd around her already had the stones in their hands. While Jesus was writing in the ground, some of them were getting their pitch ready. They were positioning their feet to get the best stance. They were getting themselves aligned with the target. They were bending their knees, flexing their muscles. They were looking down for large, jagged stones to keep within easy reach. They were anxious to throw that first stone and watch as the humiliated woman was battered, bruised, and bloodied. And they kept their focus constantly shifting between the woman, their target, and Jesus, their main target. They thought they had Him in a no-win situation. The law was clear. She should die. How could He be Who He says He is if He doesn’t uphold the laws? But, if He condemned her, he loses his reputation as a friend to the sinners. How could He teach love if He permitted murder?
But Jesus doesn’t see an adulterous woman. He doesn’t see the sinful act that she’s accused of committing. He sees a woman who needs compassion. Beyond that, He sees a pack of wolves disguised as spiritual leaders who have committed their fair share of sinfulness, but are so delusional as to their own importance, they can’t see that.
They weren’t expecting grace. They weren’t expecting forgiveness. Both were foreign ideas to them. They sought to admonish and punish. Even the woman standing in the middle could expect, at best, to be saved from death and live out the rest of her life in humiliation and shame.
Hearts pounding, they all set their eyes on Jesus. Waiting. Just waiting for Him to speak. Any way He goes, He would be trapped, they thought. The woman, already embarrassed, hurt, and confused by all that had just transpired, holds her breath.
John 8:7 RSV “And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest”
The arrogant religious leaders were stumped. As Jesus resumed His writing in the sand, they loosened their grip on the stones in their hand. This had not gone the way they had expected. They had presented Jesus with a woman who had violated the 7th commandment – You shall not commit adultery. But Jesus reflected to them their own violations. The 6th commandment – You shall not murder and the 9th commandment – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Both commandments were committed by the religious leaders themselves. They knew and Jesus knew that the woman had been set up and was being used as a pawn. They knew that they were perjuring themselves by leaving out some important details. In addition, their law stated that the two witnesses were to be the first to throw the stones. Deuteronomy 17:7 NIV “The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people.”
One by one, the thud of rocks being dropped to the ground broke the silence. Quickened footsteps shuffling in the sand got quieter as the once-zealous religious leaders hurriedly left the uncomfortable scene.
John 8:9 RSV “and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
Matthew Henry had this to say about this scene. “All who are any way called to blame the faults of others, are especially concerned to look to themselves, and keep themselves pure. In this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to insnare him, he sought to convince and convert them.”[v]
The thing I love about this piece of history is that we should be able to identify with it from several different angles.
First, as the woman caught in a sinful act. In our lives, surely there have been multiple occasions when we have found ourselves as the one being pointed at, called out, and condemned by others for something we did or even something we were just accused of doing. It may have been telling a lie, cheating on a test, or taking something that didn’t belong to us. Maybe it was even more than that. Maybe we have suffered the indictment of being self-righteous, unloving, or even unChrist-like. Whether we were guilty or innocent, the accusations hurled at us caused pain, shame, and brokenness. Thankfully for us, Jesus’ specialty is in taking something that is broken and making it into something beautiful. If you can recall a time in your life in which you stood accused, I hope there was someone who stood up in defense of you. Proverbs 31 is known for describing the virtuous woman, but there are two verses that are applicable to all of us.
Proverbs 31:8-9 GWT “Speak out for the one who cannot speak,
for the rights of those who are doomed.
9 Speak out,
and defend the rights of oppressed and needy people.”
But secondly, whether we want to admit it or not, I’m sure there have been multiple times when we had our hands and our pockets filled with stones, ready to throw. Staring down, pointing our fingers, and voicing our disgust at the actions of another. Taking out our own list of compared sinfulness and casting judgment on the severity of another’s sins while diminishing or even overlooking our own. Having a distorted view of the speck in your sister’s eye because of the log in your own eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)
Jeff Foxworthy is famous for his classification process of being a redneck.
- “If the first words out of your mouth every time you see friends are “Howdy!” “Hey!” or “How Y’all Doin?, you might be a redneck.”
- “If your Junior/Senior prom had a daycare, you might be a redneck.”
- “If you’ve ever worn a tube top to a wedding, you might be a redneck.”
- “If your family tree doesn’t have any branches, you might be a redneck.”
- “If you keep a can of Raid on the kitchen table, you might be a redneck.”
- “If you’ve ever made change in the offering plate, you might be a redneck.”
Those are funny and sometimes uncomfortable if we can identify with any of them. But let’s spin those humorous lines into something a bit more uncomfortable and possibly, more convicting.
“If you’ve ever gossiped about a situation rather than praying about the person involved, you might be a Pharisee.”
“If you’ve decided on someone’s guilt without knowing all of the facts, you might be a Pharisee.”
“If you’ve ever rated someone’s sin as something much greater and more severe than your own, you might be a Pharisee.”
“If you’ve been happy at the destruction of someone’s character rather than sorrowful at the damage done to their life and testimony, you might be a Pharisee.”
“If you’ve made the statement in response to someone’s sinfulness, ‘Oh I would never do something like that’, you might be a Pharisee.”
“If you pride yourself on your good works and your knowledge of God’s Word, you might be a Pharisee.”
Luke 6:37 CEV “Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”
Does it get any clearer than that?
Today’s scripture reminds us that we need to do an inventory of our own lives before judging and condemning others. And then if we are led to bring an infraction to a fellow believer’s attention, it needs to be done as we are instructed. Galatians 6:1 TLB “Dear brothers, if a Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help him back onto the right path, remembering that next time it might be one of you who is in the wrong.”
In other words, put down the stones. Some Christians walk around with their pockets full of stones ready to throw. There’s nothing gentle about throwing stones. Gently and humbly, we are to help one another.
Thirdly, I hope you can identify with the perception of Jesus on that day. Facing an angry crowd, determined to entrap Him at the expense of a woman who had done wrong, Jesus offered grace and forgiveness at the risk of being unpopular and ultimately, at the risk of His own life. Jesus gave grace and forgiveness even when it wasn’t asked for, when others deemed it wasn’t deserved, and when the rigid laws said otherwise. We know that Jesus hates sin but loves the sinner. He didn’t excuse what she had done. He didn’t minimize it. But rather, He took a blemished life, wiped it clean, and told her to not repeat it. Did she sin again? Most definitely. But did she commit adultery again? I have to doubt that she did.
The crime, the accusation, the evidence, and the threat hit a little too close to home for comfort. But the grace and the forgiveness were personal. Lives should be changed when we recognize the true cost of Jesus’ grace and forgiveness. In fact, we should be so overwhelmed with gratitude and love for Him, that it overflows and drowns out any bit of Pharisee within us.
“But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” (Romans 5:8 MSG)
[i] O.J. Simpson Trial: Where Are They Now? – ABC News (go.com)
[ii] The Psychology Behind Society’s True Crime Obsession | Rasmussen University
[iii] Mosaic Law History & Overview | What is the Law of Moses? – Video & Lesson Transcript | Study.com
[iv] Understanding the 3 Types of Laws in the Old Testament – Bibles and Blessings
[v] John 8 Bible Commentary – Matthew Henry (concise) (christianity.com)