The woman had probably been held by the authorities for some time. To them, she was just a means to an end. Now, on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the chief priests and Pharisees are ready to spring their trap.
Jesus had been staying out in Bethany at night and coming in to Jerusalem to teach in the Temple in the early morning. You couldn’t find a much more public venue for a moment of denouement that this. Dragging the woman accused of adultery into the presence of Jesus they demand, “Now what do you say?”
Her accusers have already made up their minds about what to do to her. Put on public display, deeply humiliated, she knew she was in serious trouble — the law of Moses called for stoning. But her accusers are more interested in taking Jesus down. She is just a tool with which to do that. “Now what do YOU say?” The trap is laid. If Jesus disavows the law of Moses, his credibility will be undermined providing grounds to call him lawless and drag him into court.
On the other hand, if he upholds the law of Moses, he would be advocating a harsh punishment at odds with his well-known compassion for the broken, the disreputable, society’s cast-offs. Where then his quickness to forgive, to restore?
So Jesus bends over to write in the dust. It was unlawful to write even two letters on the Sabbath, but writing in the dust was permissible. Jesus is no slouch when it comes to public confrontations and his action throws his accusers’ challenge right back in their faces.
“You think you know the Mosaic law so well. But I know it far better than you.”
Having written in the dust (perhaps the Mosaic sentence for adultery), Jesus looks up at his accusers and asks, “Which one of you dares to cast the first stone?”
Their decision to confront Jesus in the very public Temple setting was a boomerang headed right back at them. If any one of them picked up a stone and carried out the sentence, they would have begun a public disturbance that would in turn bring down on them the wrath of Roman soldiers patrolling the walls of the Antonia Fortress that overlooked the Temple court. Knowing this, the accusers slink away to do their dirty work later, in the dark of Gethsemane.
For now, Jesus rises and asks the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” By not following through on their accusations, they had effectively dismissed their case against her. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus told her.
Having bested his opponents just the day before and fanned the flames of their anger against him, Jesus knows the risks he is taking in his action. It is a costly demonstration of unexpected love.
“Love others as I have loved you” (John 13.34).