The Sacred Art of Stone Throwing
John 8: 1-11
There is probably no more well-known but also troubling scene in all the gospels than our text this morning. Here we find the religious elite bringing a “sinner” to Jesus — not for forgiveness, but for justice; not for redemption but for revenge. They were members of the “Sacred Society of Self-Righteous Stone Throwers.” They loved to find someone doing something “wrong” and bring them to public ridicule. Why? Why is a good question, is it not?
Have we given much thought to what goes into producing someone like this? No one is born legalistic or judgmental; we are forged into that pattern in life. What forces had so conspired that these had become such ardent attackers of “sin?” We would not consider these to be “bad” or “evil” persons. They were the pillars of society, i.e., teachers of the law & religious leaders. These were highly educated and thoughtful men whose primary concern was to have a country in which God’s rule prevailed. Their public personae was of persons who desired to follow God’s law, the Torah, to the nth degree. They only sought this same level of righteousness for others as well. They fervently believed that if all would follow God’s law that not only would their society be successful above all others, but that the Kingdom of God would prevail. These men would make good neighbors: no loud parties, keep the yards mowed and the flower beds weeded. They only wanted a good and moral society to live in, did they not?
We know how they felt, do we not? We see so many changes in morality and so many divergent “lifestyles” that there can rise up in us a desire to set the world straight. Let’s not kid ourselves — these emotions run deep within all of us. We are all just a few steps away from joining vendetta groups to bring “sinners” to Jesus for correction and edification in morals. We are all at times on the verge of taking up stones and bringing the judgment of God (or so we say) on others.
I believe there was an underlying issue which was only tangentially connected with this woman. These men were afraid — and fear does strange things to us. They feared they were losing control over their society. They feared the Roman reaction if this rabble-rousing-rabbi from Nazareth kept preaching his “good news.” Already his popularity was rising and they feared that he might lead a rebellion that would bring the Roman boot down upon their neck. Fear does strange things to us — it moves us in ways and down paths we would otherwise never go.
The conundrum that faced Jesus is simple: the Torah (in Deuteronomy) called for the stoning of those who committed adultery. Roman law prohibited the Jews from carrying out capital punishment of any kind without Roman permission. If Jesus had said that she should be stoned, then the Romans would have arrested him. If Jesus had said that she should go free—then he would have been discredited in the eyes of the Jewish faithful. After all, adultery was one of the Ten Commandments — #7 I believe.
Years ago as I read this episode more closely a question jumped out at me: Where is the man? The last time I checked it takes two to commit adultery. Why have they only brought a woman? These men have displayed their hand by bringing only the woman. Was she a married woman caught having sex with a unmarried man? Probably, but doesn’t that still make both guilty? Had they set her up with a man solely for the purpose of challenging Jesus? Stone throwers often act in haste rather than thinking through all the ramifications of their actions.
Equally appalling is not so much the issue raised, but the manner of its raising. These men had not one thought about the dignity or worth of this woman. In their eyes she was not a woman, but an adulteress who forfeited her right to live upon committing this sin. They thought of her in terms of adjectives, not nouns.
Jesus knew the difference between adjectives and nouns. As humans we are never adjectives — they only describe the perception of others. Yes, this woman was guilty of adultery; but first and foremost she was a woman, a person created in the image of God of worth and value. When we place adjectives on a person — black, white, Latino, disabled, dishonest, stern, etc., we change the terms of their existence and we have no right to do that. Jesus saw people apart from descriptors; he saw them as children of God — no more and no less. Stone throwers confuse adjectives and nouns, because it is easier to kill another if they are less than human.
Jesus’ response to both the men and the woman is truly remarkable. Initially he says nothing to the crowd, but just kneels down and begins to write in the sand. There have been all matter of suggestions as to what he wrote — but we really do not know. Did he start writing the list of their sins? Did he write the ten Hebrew letters that summarize the Ten Commandments? By his refusal to speak to them Jesus indicates that he is not interested in their Wild West lynch mob form of justice, in joining their Sacred Society. Jesus ignores them and in so doing indicates that he will have nothing to do with their vigilantism.
However, these leaders will not let this rest; they push the matter so that Jesus finally utters those well-known words: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” You could have dropped an atom bomb in their midst and it would not have had this much effect. In that second Jesus shifted the focus from her sin to theirs, from her failure to their failures. Subconsciously they were projecting their shadow side onto her; she was their scapegoat. If they could punish her then they would also remove their sin. Jesus would not let them do that. Each must confess his/her own sin — then and today.
We really don’t want to talk much about our sin—do we? Sin is what other people do—not what we do. Soren Kierkegaard said that “Sin is either trying to be more than we should be, arrogance or less than we should be, laziness.” Either way we are guilty of falling short of who God has created us to be.
We’re not talking about innocence here — either with the woman, the leaders, or with us. Life is not a matter of innocence — we are all guilty at some level and we know it whether we will admit it or not. Confess it we must…for the person who will not confess socio-pathological. Each and all of us are guilty at one level or another. Jesus hits them squarely on the nail of universal guilt. We are all guilty.
The reaction of the crowd is priceless. One by one they leave, from the oldest to the youngest. The oldest left first, for they knew well the truth of which Jesus spoke. Age does that to us; it enables us to see our imperfections so much better than when we are young. I guess that is why grandparents tend to be so much more lenient than parents; they know well that life is not a game of perfect but of falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up. When we are young we strive to have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect career—and so on. By the time we reach middle age we know that there is no such thing as perfect — and that really is o.k.
Jesus kneels and writes again — until the entire crowd is left. Rising up Jesus questions her concerning her accusers and then gives her those words of grace: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.” Can we imagine how this woman felt? Ten minutes earlier she believed her life was over; now not only was she free, she was forgiven.
Forgiven! How great is the knowledge and feeling that one’s sin is put in the past and is an issue no more. As far as the east is from the West, so far has God removed our transgressions from us” is how the Psalmist describes it. Forgiveness is simply giving a person a second chance on the same terms as the first.
Have you ever heard of the disease of scleroderma? It is a gradual hardening of the soft tissue, both inside and outside our bodies. Unnoticed at first — usually mistaken for aging or some other normal deterioration of our fine motor skills, eventually we realize that something more is going on.
As horrific as scleroderma is, even more horrendous is spiritual scleroderma, because it not only hardens our heart toward others, it hardens our heart toward the Spirit. When we are unable to feel the reality of our sin and our need for forgiveness, then we know our heart is ossifying — spiritual scleroderma is at work. When we no longer feel the need to worship, to seek God and know God’s Spirit in our lives — then spiritual scleroderma is at work. The more it works, the more self-righteousness we become. The more ossified our heart the less compassion and understanding we exhibit for others who fail.
These religious leaders knew about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but they felt no need for it — their hearts were ossified beyond measure. This hardening process occurs so subtlety and quietly that we do not notice it until we are well down the path of legalism and judgmentalism. If we do not see our own need of forgiveness we will never be able to fully forgive others, no matter how much Bible we may quote or theology we may spout. Could it be that what God really wants in a church is to be a place where forgiveness can be had…no matter what? Could it be that all else in Christianity is really secondary to forgiveness and grace?
In Spain a father and son had a falling out and the son said some very harsh and cruel words, leaving the house and swearing to never return. His father, who loved him deeply, set off to find him. He searched and he searched for months on end, but to no avail. Finally, in one last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the Madrid Newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven; I love you, Your Father.” It is said, that on that Saturday, eight-hundred men named Paco showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
What about us? Do we have unfinished business with family and friends? Is there forgiveness that needs to be offered, to be requested, to be given?
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.’”
August 23rd, 2015