John 8: Mercy Finds a Way

Like a flowering weed growing through the concrete, mercy finds a way.

I’m pretty sure I took a class on the Gospel of John at seminary. I still have the Anchor Bible commentary authored by Father Raymond E. Brown, which I would not have otherwise and for which I’m grateful. I don’t remember who the professor was, which is pretty unusual for me. But I do remember learning something there, verified by Father Brown’s commentary, that is sort of mind-blowing.

John 8:1-11 has one of the most famous and oft-depicted stories in the New Testament: Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. This is where “let he without sin cast the first stone” comes from: Jesus comes upon a crowd that has caught a woman in the act of adultery, and they ask Jesus whether they should follow Levitical law and stone her to death, and he writes…something…on the ground before telling the crowd that the ones of them who are sinless can cast the first stone, and they all disperse, one by one, starting with the oldest, until he looks up from his doodling, asks the woman where everyone has gone off to, and tells her to go and not do this again.

You know that story, right?

It almost certainly wasn’t an original part of the gospel.

If your sense of Scripture is that it was handed down by the Holy Spirit directly to the guys who wrote each book, dictated verbatim from God, OK, so, you might want to sit down.

The earliest commentaries on John’s gospel, and the oldest manuscripts of the gospel, don’t include this story, as compelling as it is. From a storytelling sense, it breaks up the narrative pretty awkwardly. And linguistically, it uses a lot of language that fits pretty well in the other gospels but sticks out like a sore thumb in John. In fact, there are some pretty old manuscripts that have this story stuck into Luke 21 instead, though it almost certainly wasn’t originally there, either.

There IS some evidence that the story was floating around in the circles of early Christianity, and by the time you get to the 5th century, to St. Augustine and St. Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible, it had landed in this slot.

But, basically, this is a story that wasn’t a part of the original gospels, but was too on point to leave out.

I don’t have any new wisdom to offer on the story itself. The themes of hypocrisy and mercy are so rich on their own, and many much wiser souls have said plenty about this beautiful, short story. (I will add that the detail that the oldest members of the crowd were the first to give up on the lynching struck a chord; the older I get, the harder it is for me to hold on to self-righteousness.)

But the fact alone that it somehow got snuck into the Bible and made it this far encourages me plenty, even if it’s unsettling for some. While it has some points of commonality with the Apocryphal story of Susanna in the Book of Daniel, with a woman accused of adultery, this story doesn’t ever claim that the accused was innocent. It just leans into the reality that none of us have clean hands, that we all rely on mercy and forgiveness, so we ought not be slow to offer the same.

Pope Francis once called a special Jubilee Year to celebrate mercy, and put his name on a book called “The Name of God is Mercy;” my guess is, if he goes down in history as “the pope of mercy,” he’d be alright with that. Because we need the reminder, often, that mercy is all we can put our hope in, just like the guys with the rocks in their hands. Or the woman they were aiming at.

I live in a place where almost everyone came from somewhere else, and the only thing they can agree on is that we should quit letting in so many new people, because of the traffic. And it takes the same hypocritical mindset to say that it’s OK for me to experience forgiveness, but NOW we gotta start cracking down on folks.

That message of mercy sounds weak, but, man, it’s gritty. It shows up at the most inopportune times, like the sentencing phase of a trial. Like a flowering weed working its way through the pavement. It’ll even worm its way into the Gospel, when you’re not looking.

One response to “John 8: Mercy Finds a Way”

  1. […] does this a lot. I think about the time that he came upon a woman caught in adultery (John 8). The gang of leaders wanted Jesus to endorse them killing her, and presumably the other option […]

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