Summer break is upon us. Both of my boys recently finished their final exams, marking the welcomed end of an unusual school year. As I was thinking about that, I was reminded of a “final exam” posed to Jesus by some of the religious leaders of his day.
Seeing a chance to catch Jesus in a contradiction between radical forgiveness and faithfulness to the law, a group of religious leaders brought him a woman “caught in the act of adultery.” It’s a “surprise exam” with a woman’s life on the line. (You can read the whole account in John 8:1-11.)
Jesus’ unexpected response silences the religious leaders and initiates three radical transformations in the lives of those present — three movements toward a new way of living and a new identity.
First, Jesus brings about the movement from accusation to self-reflection. It’s all too easy to fall into the role of the accuser. It’s so much easier to point the finger at someone else — to find all the reasons why someone else is at fault and my actions are somehow justified.
Jesus’ response turns the tables on those accusing this woman. He doesn’t disagree with their reading of the law, but calls for a shift in focus. “Whoever has no sin, go ahead and throw the first stone.” In so doing, Jesus forces them to shift their gaze from the women to the condition of their own hearts.
The second movement is from shame to grace. Imagine what this woman was going through — caught in sin, dragged before the city, gawked at, ridiculed, spit upon, and a group of religious leaders basically saying, “You would be better off dead.”
Jesus, however, responds quite differently. He bends down to write in the sand. For just a moment, he draws the ire of the crowd, focusing it on himself. He stands to announce his verdict and goes back to writing in the sand. Shifting the the attention from the crowd to himself, Jesus creates space for them to drop their stones and slip away unnoticed. This grace creates a space for transformation to take place.
Finally, we see the movement from guilt to forgiveness. With no one left, Jesus finally speaks to the woman. “Is there no one left to condemn you?” Jesus asks. “Neither do I condemn you.” He isn’t ignoring the woman’s sin — he is offering forgiveness.
So many of us live lives defined by our sin, failures, and shortcomings. Over time, we start believing this is who we really are. We believe that we are a screw-up, a drunk, a liar, a thief, an adulterer. And while we may have committed those sins, that is not our true identity.
Instead, the scripture tells us, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). The response of Jesus removes the burden of focusing our attention on others, lifts the burden of shame, and cancels the sentence of guilt. Forgiveness sets us free to become what grace says we already were: children of God, heirs of the kingdom, ambassadors for Christ, and the love of God’s heart.