According to Jewish law, adultery was a capital crime punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). But according to Roman law—which governed occupied Palestine—Jews had no authority to put anyone to death. Capital cases had to be referred to the Roman Procurator. So, if Our Lord had agreed with the Pharisees, he would have violated the Roman law. But if he had disagreed, he would have been identified as a false teacher.
Once again, Our Lord’s enemies underestimated him. He needed only one sentence to silence them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Why did this one sentence have such a dramatic impact? Well, Our Lord made it clear that whatever judgment they levelled against this woman for her sin would be levelled against them for their own sins. If she were condemned, they would be condemned too. There were only two responses: to confess their sins, or to walk away. And since they were unwilling to repent, they walked away, and the woman lived.
But, they should have stayed. That’s what the woman did, and her life was changed. Our Lord showered her with grace and washed away her sins. Even though she was guilty, Our Lord issued a decree of divine forgiveness and set her on a new path.
I recently read about the 18th century hymn writer John Newton, who learned this lesson well. He survived a violent storm at sea and, and in thanksgiving to God, he wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Newton was a slave trader. He focused on material gain and cared little about the people he put into chains. After experiencing God’s mercy so dramatically, he was converted and gave his life to God. He eventually spoke out against the slave trade and influenced the young William Wilberforce who devoted his life to outlaw slavery in Great Britain.
Like John Newton, we may feel moved to change our lives to the degree to which we experience God’s mercy. And we should always remember that, like the woman caught in adultery, we too deserve punishment, but have been given mercy, peace, and life instead.