John is too careful in his choice of words, and the reaction of Jesus’ enemies is too clear, for it just to be a mistake of grammar.
Before Abraham was, I am. (8:58)
John makes it as clear as he can without spelling it out as a direct claim – Jesus, the Word of chapter 1, shares his eternal being with the God who spoke to Moses back in Exodus chapter 3. He is the same self-complete, absolute existence, God. It’s the only thing that makes sense of so much of what he says and does, but here it’s brought to the surface of all of Jesus’ conflicts.
Jesus can define himself, as can the Father, simply as ‘I am who I am’. He doesn’t depend on anyone else’s recognition or approval – though much of their life may depend on whether or not they do recognise him for who he is. His certainty in his identity is one of the things so striking about Jesus, especially in John’s gospel.
Perhaps it underlies the story in 8:1-11. Like Luke’s account of Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the Cross, it’s bracketed in most modern versions, because it’s not included in many of the earliest manuscripts. But it fits – not only with John’s style and priorities but also with what we see of Jesus.
And his confidence is clear, in the middle of his accusers – who this time have tried to trap him into giving a clear answer – should this woman die for her adultery (showing him as harsh) or not (picturing him as Soft on Sin)? They don’t care about her, or about the man who was presumably involved but somehow escaped. They have no concern for her safety, reputation or the problems which may have led her into this situation in the first place. She’s just a case study to put Jesus on the spot.
Jesus’ response is famous and powerful – but it’s not ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first t0 throw a stone at her.’ (8:7) – or at least that’s not his first response. His first response is silence, as he writes on the ground in the dust. He ignores them – he will not get drawn into discussing the accused woman’s guilt or fate in public. He ignores his enemies and writes in the dust.
And when he is pushed to speak, it is then that his answer turns the accusers’ pointing fingers back at themselves. Again, notice, he doesn’t address the woman herself yet, or say anything about her – only about those who accuse her, pushing them into self-awareness so that they drift away, judged by themselves in the certainty of this absolute light of holiness blazing into the shadows of their hearts.
That silence – not rushing to an answer, not defending himself or the woman, not getting drawn into argument, comes from the sure identity of Jesus.
And when he is at last alone with the woman, Jesus stands up and speaks to her. His words aren’t for an audience or a crowd, but for her. ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.’
The one sinless person, who could by his own challenge have thrown the first stone, chooses not to judge, to condemn. He accepts, then he challenges. His absolute, unconditional acceptance of the accused woman comes first. But it is followed immediately by the call to repent, to change and to live better.
I’m sure it’s not original, but I can’t remember where I heard it. God loves us just as we are. More than that, God loves us too much to leave us as we are.