A Line in the Sand
“What has been done in broad daylight, must be judged in broad daylight. But not by the governments, or the courts. No, the government itself would never bring justice for cases such as this. And so, we gather here today to secure our own justice.
That this could happen in our time, in our civilized society! Even to speak of it causes our jaws to drop in shock. And yet, are we so surprised to find this happening, given who holds office? He turns a blind eye to it, and therefore encourages it in our society.
I speak, of course, of adultery.
Herod Antipas must already think himself a god, beyond reproach. Why else would he put his face on our coinage? When he beheaded John, it sent a clear message to those with lust burning in their hearts. Not only would there be no punishment, adultery would be protected. How many more families must we watch be destroyed?”
And so, I lifted my rock high and turned to the crowds. “Our leaders have ignored our protest. Do we need leaders who will boldly take action? No, it is time for us to stand, and secure justice on our own terms. Those of us who would sit in silence do nothing, and are complicit!” I cried, as the crowd gravely nodded.
“Will we let this woman go unpunished?” I questioned pointedly. My eyes searched the crowd, looking for anyone who would dare deny justice for my countrymen.
When I saw him, I nearly dropped the rock in shock. It was the teacher. We had expected him to show up, of course. We had laid a perfect trap, with the adulteress as bait. If he obeyed our laws, Pilate would have him arrested. If he obeyed Rome’s laws, we’d finally prove where his true allegiance lied. Whatever he chose, we’d win.
“What say you?” I asked, thrusting the rock upon him. But he only watched me, as the crowd waited in silence. There was something about the way he looked at me. It was almost as if I were on trial, instead of the woman.
The silence from the teacher was deafening. His voice had always infuriated me. So soft and gentle, like the bleating of some helpless sheep. Teachers like him are how our country wound up in this state. Never standing up for justice, always making excuses. Where was his outrage?
I had heard whispers that he was a prophet. A Samaritan woman once claimed, “he told me about everything I had ever done” — and we all know what that means. But I didn’t believe the rumors. If he was truly a prophet, he would execute the Almighty’s judgement right then and there. Was not adultery a sin? Was not the punishment death?
“What say you?” I demanded again. “You above all know the laws of our country! Day after day, you quote the words of Abraham, and Moses. You teach the laws that founded our nation, but won’t obey them yourself!”
Gently, he took the rock from my hands.
“Our laws demand death!” I cried, my voice breaking at the worst possible moment.
“Indeed, our laws demand it…” he said, stepping forward. Kneeling in front of me, he drew a line in the dirt with his finger, and began to write beneath it.
Suddenly, I regretted giving him the rock.
Did he know?
As if he had heard my thoughts, he turned that dreadful gaze upon me. The light of a burning flame flashed in his eyes. He no longer wrote with his finger, but a sword — and the tip drew sparks out of the earth I stood on. Before my very eyes, the lamb had become a lion.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone at her!” he ordered, before returning to writing in the dirt.
I had thought I understood justice. But now, the emissary of Justice Himself stood before me with the terrifying fullness of God’s wrath. I couldn’t see what he was writing, but somehow I knew. The prophet was making a list, and my name was at the top. The woman would be stoned, yes. And I would be next.
I turned, and fled.
For days, I hid in my home. I dared not step across the threshold of my bedroom, much less my front door. Surely, the woman was long dead, and now the prophet was coming for me. At night, the sound of footsteps would wake me in a cold sweat. If I could not hide my sins from the prophet, how I could I hope to hide my presence?
But then, I received a visit from Nicodemus. He told me what happened after I fled. The crowd I gathered had dissipated, leaving the prophet alone with the woman. Just like that, the lion was once again the lamb.
“So much for the jury,” he said, a smug smile upon his face. “Woman, is there anyone left to condemn you?”
“No one, sir…” she responded.
“Then, neither do I condemn you.” I could almost see the self satisfied expression on the prophet’s face. He was pleased with himself, and enjoying the moment.
I couldn’t grasp why Nicodemus told me this story with such hope. A Pharisee? No, Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin! A judge! Laws and contracts were the foundation of his occupation. This ran counter to everything he had ever studied, that he had ever taught. How could he condone sweeping adultery under the rug, while sitting on the high court?
Nicodemus must have caught the bewilderment on my face. With a laugh, he seized me, and looked me right in the eye. “The Messiah offers us a new birth! Not of man’s will or passion, but of God!”
Nicodemus assured me that it would soon make sense, the story was not yet over. The prophet had not forgotten about the charge of adultery. Sorrow washed over his face, and he spoke with urgency. “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”
All of this unsettled me. What did it mean? Nicodemus had blasphemed right in front of me. Had the systemic corruption spread from the Roman courts to the Jewish one? The thought was more than I could bear. There was no ignoring the weight of the woman’s sins, the sins of my country. I had witnessed first hand their effects. Would there be no one held accountable for the ruined lives?
And yet, my mind was at war with my heart. I too deserved judgement. For so long, I had seared my conscience with my own anger, but the prophet tore open a wound that self-righteousness could never close. I could no longer call for justice without bringing it upon myself.
Justice is a simple equation. The sins are laid on one side of the scale, and punishments on the other. By rights, the woman should be dead, and I with her. But the prophet cleared the punishment from the scale, and broke the balance.
How could he?
Years later, I received word that the prophet was on trial for treason. He had claimed to be the messiah, the son of God. Rome would not punish this, but for our purposes, it was close enough. We told Pilate he wanted to be King. Though Pilate saw through our ploy, we threatened to riot. Even unarmed, there were enough present to overthrow his villa. Pilate caved. We forced his hand.
His trial was a mockery — the height of injustice. Paper thin charges were hurled at him, his words taken out of context. But he remained enigmatically silent. Where had the lion gone? He sought justice for the woman, would he not seek it for himself? Even as they nailed him to the cross, I could hear his frail bleating — “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
It was the very same crowd I gathered earlier that had killed him. Drunken on their own self-righteousness, they demanded justice from Pilate. I had planted that seed, that they needed to seek justice at any cost. But it was a charade. For the woman caught in adultery, I did not want justice. Only judgement.
With his dying breath, he said, “It is finished.” And as I looked on his naked, beaten, and lifeless body, I saw a sign affixed over his head. “The King of the Jews.” Only then did I understand. Pilate had made the sign out of spite. Little did he know, it was the truth.
This was no mere teacher or prophet. He was The Messiah. The woman’s judgement was not discarded. It was collected, and on that cross, the Son of God bore it himself.
Whatever hope our world had was in that man — that his mercy would triumph over judgement. Oh, that I would have met him before he died. I would have thrown myself at his feet, and perhaps in his mercy, he would have taken my punishment as well.
Now, I see. The Messiah did not come to abolish the law, he came to fulfill it. His death would satisfy the old law of judgement, and his blood would be the ink that signed the new covenant of grace.
But that was only his death. Now, there are rumors that he is alive. And if he is alive, then this is the new birth that Nicodemus spoke of. A hope that cannot be destroyed, a light that darkness cannot overcome:
That because he lives, we also might live.
Inspired by “What Pilate said to Gaius One Night”.
Written in memory of Ravi Zacharias (1946–2020).