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Scholars say this story is not found in the original versions of the gospel of John but was inserted later into that gospel. The story’s language and style are not like the language and style found in John’s gospel. Even so, the Catholic church accepts the story as an authentic part of scripture, however it made its way into the gospel of John about the year 100 or so.
If you look at the part in John’s gospel where the story occurs, you may see why it was placed there. Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, an autumn feast to thank God for the harvest that had just been gathered in. Without God’s blessings of rain and good weather there would be no harvest, and so water and light are the gifts of God celebrated on the feast. They bring life.
In the temple area at the feast, Jesus proclaims that God sent him to bless the human family with life. He’s the water bringing life, the warm Sun bringing a harvest beyond any they could imagine. But when he says that, the leaders of the people begin looking for ways to put him to death. He claims to be the Messiah and God’s Son.
They brought him a woman caught in adultery and asked if she should be stoned to death for what she had done. That was the law given to them by Moses. “’So what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” They didn’t care about the woman, if she died by being stoned to death. They were after him. On this feast celebrating life they wanted him to die.
Jesus doesn’t answer them. “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, ’Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”
What was Jesus writing on the ground with his finger? We don’t know. Most likely it was an act of utter disgust at what they were doing to the woman. Treating her as if she were nothing. So he has nothing to say to them except finally, ‘Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
“And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”
The story has that beautiful ending. “So he was left alone with the woman before him.” “Only two remain, the poor woman and Incarnate Mercy,” St. Augustine writes.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”You wonder if the scribe who put this story into John’s original gospel recognized how appropriate this place was for a story of God’s mercy from Jesus’ lifetime? God wants people to live, not die. God respects people no matter what. His mercy is like the rain and the sun that bring a harvest of good things. Mercy does not condemn. “Go ,” he says to the woman. “forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead” continue toward the goal, the prize, that’s promised to all.