I'm afraid Christians too often have overemphasized Jesus’ commandment, "Go and sin no more!" at the expense of his earlier phrase, "...Neither do I condemn you."
Which may be, in part, why I find the story of the woman caught in adultery to be so fascinating. In case you're not familiar with the story the Gospel of John presents us, here it goes:
"As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. ‘Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’ They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, ‘All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!’ Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, ‘Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ ‘No, Lord,’ she said. And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.’”
What about this story isn't fascinating?
For just a moment, picture this with me. You're sitting at the feet of arguably the most captivating speaker the world has ever heard. Halfway through the discourse, in walks a gang of men, dragging a sobbing woman through the dirt behind them. I think it's safe to assume that, at this point, they have your full attention. With all eyes on him, the leader of these men takes it upon himself to address the crowd. He rambles on about how she was caught in adultery, so it's only right they brought her in to carry out her punishment.
Wait a minute. What? She was caught in adultery? As in, she was caught in the act? By all of them? And they choose to air this, and carry out her punishment right here? Was it really necessary to interrupt Jesus' teaching in the temple? For this? Aren't these kind of issues taken care of a little more discreetly? And where is the man they caught her with during all of this?
To me, this whole situation seems a bit suspect. Was this some sort of trap? Obviously John thinks it is, which is why he tells us, "They were trying to trap him..."
Truth be told, these accusers aren't really seeking Jesus' opinion on the matter — they have already made up their mind. Why else would they distance themselves from and dehumanize her by referring to her as "this woman?”
The Pharisees knew full well that law required she be put to death for her sin. However, Roman law didn't allow the Jews to carry out their own executions. As you can see, Jesus is in a lose-lose situation.
Yet none of this seems to take Jesus by surprise.
Contrary to what many in the church would have you believe, I don't think this seems to be a case study in "loving the sinner, but hating the sin." As I've already mentioned, Jesus doesn't even really address her sin. For him, “go and sin no more” seems to be more of an afterthought. Not only is it the last thing he says, but the only other time it's recorded that Jesus uses this phrase is with the man at the pool of Bethesda. And if you're familiar with that story, we have no indication that his sin lead to his paralysis.
Could it be that Jesus' admonition to “sin no more” is a jab directed instead at the religious leaders? That Jesus is telling them if they don't quit their sinning, the sin police will have them killed? And Jesus might not be there next time to save them?
Pope John Paul II once commented that the Pharisees in this story, “intend[ed] to show that his teaching on God's merciful love contradicts the law.”
Which brings me to what I most love about this story, and what I most love about Jesus — his relentless love and compassion toward sinners. In his vast wisdom, Jesus chooses to extend grace instead of judgment and condemnation.
The sad reality for many outside the church is that so often we are still looking to prove Jesus' teaching on God's merciful love is contradictory to the law. What other reason do we have for drawing the arbitrary lines we do? Why else would we wait around the corner to condemn others’ "ungodly" acts?
Paul, in Romans 2, tells us this is not a good practice:
"You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! … Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? … Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?"
That you are a sinner whom should sin no more isn't a gospel worth sharing. Why then have we forgotten this truth? Have we forgotten it was God's grace, not his judgment, which led us to repentance?
I'm not advocating we condone sin. Nor do I believe that is the message of Jesus. But perhaps his message is that we should be slow to judge, quick to extend compassion, and ready to offer forgiveness. After all, that's what he did.
While that is never an easy task, this story is a clear example of how we are supposed to live as those that have received — or rather, embraced — that same grace.
As Pope John Paul II said, “Christian forgiveness is not synonymous with mere tolerance, but implies something more demanding.”
He goes on to say,
“There is a need for Christian forgiveness, which instills hope and trust without weakening the struggle against evil. There is a need to give and receive mercy.”