The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
Yesterday’s gospel reading is often used nowadays to argue that laws punishing adulterers are somehow unchristian. This is obviously wrong, because Christians themselves continued to punish adultery for many centuries thereafter, with no one seeing anything contrary to the faith about it until very recently. Indeed, penalties for adultery became much harsher when the Roman Empire was Christianized. Adultery is intrinsically evil, and it is a menace to the common good, so punishing it is an appropriate state act. Another unfortunate message readers sometimes take away is that wanting to see such laws enforced marks one out as self-righteous and hypocritical. When an appropriate authority enforces the law, this is certainly no mark against that magistrate’s character, but this is not the situation that confronted Jesus.
Let us ask why it says the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus with this question. After all, they just gave him the right answer, right? If Jesus would have just agreed with them, of what could He be accused? Well, as the Pharisees later admit to Pilate, they don’t have the authority to carry out executions. (“We have no law to put any man to death.”) So we are not here dealing with a proper exercise of authority. What we are dealing with is something more like a mob. Jesus is being tested in the same way He was when asked whether it is right to pay taxes. When taking a position on how to deal with the occupation, it’s hard not to come off as either suicidal or cowardly. Christ must either defy the occupational arrangement or seem indifferent to the enforcement of the Mosaic Law.
Jesus resolves the problem by emphasizing the crowd’s lack of authority. He questions neither the Law nor the woman’s guilt. He does not even take any initiative to rescue the man caught in adultery, who is likewise liable to stoning. He only asks what right the crowd has to take upon itself the enforcement of the law. It could only be based on their supposedly greater righteousness and purity. Christ points out that if that is your claim to power, you had best take a more honest look inside yourself and realize that you are as much a sinner as anyone else. Human authority cannot base itself on the virtue of those who rule, for all are sinners. Rather, it comes from being one of God’s official ministers, of whom it is said that they do not wear the sword in vain.