Sticks and Stones

Last time Any One Who Is Without Sin…, I looked at a few verses in the gospel of John (8: 1-11), and wrote on four insights. Today, I’d like to look at some practical implications.

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  • If I am “part of the crowd” following Jesus, how easily do I get distracted by the “Pharisees” and critics? How often do I wander off track, looking at fine points in the scriptures that fit a particular argument? How often do I get caught up in senseless debates, allowing myself to be offended or riled up? Over the past several weeks, I have seen arguments via FB , e-mail, or other social media sites where Christians are using Bible verses, Church traditions, the U.S. Constitution, and other teachings and documents to defend such things as wearing a face mask, defying executive orders, practicing (or not practicing) social distancing, and condemning family, friends, and neighbors for taking a different view. We live in a society that reacts– often instantly and with confidence in our own morality– instead of listening and contemplating. We like building strong arguments to defend…scripture? tradition? interpretation? Jesus did none of these things when confronted by this mob. He didn’t dismantle their argument with more argument– he simply got to the heart of the matter– how to deal with Sin.
  • How often do I come to Jesus “knowing” the answer before I ask the question? The Pharisees in the story were not really interested in Jesus’ thoughts or wisdom concerning the situation at hand. They assumed that Jesus would have to answer in only one of two ways, and that either way, he would look bad. I may not be trying to “trap” Jesus with my prayers, but often, I AM trying to seek his confirmation, rather than his wisdom and teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 NRSV) Many times, I am busier “loving” how much I know than learning how much God loves!
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  • For me, one of the most amazing new insights about this passage is that once Jesus introduces the phrase, “Any one who is without sin…” everyone leaves– everyone except the one who has been caught in the act of sinning, and the One who has always been without sin. Dealing with Sin is a very personal thing– both confronting our own sinfulness, and acknowledging God’s perfect righteousness. Everyone in the original crowd came to hear Jesus teach. And they were comfortable letting someone else be humiliated and condemned for her sin. But when their own unrighteousness was introduced into the situation–secret sins, unconfessed sins, pride, prejudice, and more–they melted away. How often do I slink away, unwilling or ungrateful to see Jesus show mercy to someone I find “unworthy,” knowing that I am equally undeserving, knowing that I am not “without sin?” Yet the sinful woman in question is the only one who receives the full light of Jesus’ love and mercy. Dozens of others, eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, missed the greatest lesson of all. In the very next verse, at the very next opportunity to speak, Jesus makes one of the most amazing statements in the Gospels, “12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12 ESV) It’s not just showing up to hear him speak; it’s not just knowing the law–it’s following him that leads to light and life.
  • Finally, Jesus grants mercy. He doesn’t split hairs about the Law of Moses. He doesn’t dismiss the reality of Sin or guilt. He doesn’t give the woman a long list of do’s and don’ts for the future or a proscribed plan of atonement. He doesn’t give her a blank check to keep sinning. The Bible doesn’t give us an epilogue to the story. We don’t hear whether or not the woman gave up her life of adultery– we assume that she did. But why? Would she have given it up because she had “dodged a bullet” with the mob? Part of the reason she was brought to Jesus in the first place was that Roman law overruled Jewish law. The mob was not likely to stone this woman– especially within the city limits. ( In fact, in the book of Acts, we have the story of Stephen, who was stoned by a mob. He was dragged out of town, after facing trial by the Sanhedrin, and stoned because of his testimony against their unbelief. ) Would the woman’s life have changed because her guilty secret had been exposed, even though she had not been condemned? Or is it more likely that her life changed because she had an encounter with the “One who is without sin,” and found in Him a love greater than condemnation? She hadn’t planned to follow Jesus. She may not have taken his teaching seriously if she had been just “one of the crowd.” She wasn’t singled out because of her beauty or righteousness or knowledge or status. But Jesus poured out on her the fullness of His love and mercy. How would/does such an encounter change my life? Yours?
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The Pharisees saw this woman as a pawn worthy of stoning; worthy of condemnation. They brought her, intending to throw “sticks and stones,” accusations, and painful, even fatal words. Jesus used words of healing and hope. May we do the same today– as we approach our neighbors and friends, and as we approach the Sinless one who died in our place.

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Any One Who Is Without Sin…

I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.

The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).

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Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”

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Four details I want to highlight in this story:

  • There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
  • Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
  • One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
  • Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
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Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.

Sowing the Wind

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  Hosea 8:7

Hosea was a prophet who foretold the destruction (and eventual restoration) of his people.  God was pouring out his judgment against an unfaithful nation, and he used the tragic family life of Hosea as a living example of his dealings with Israel.  Hosea married a prostitute; an unfaithful and unloving spouse who chased after men with ready money and cheap gifts.  But when her activities resulted in slavery, shame, and despair, Hosea redeemed her and restored her as his wife.  In the same way, God had made a promise to the people of Israel, but they had broken their covenant and followed their own rules, chasing after the surrounding cultures, with their foreign gods and their hedonistic rituals, including human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, and divination.  There are many metaphors used throughout this book, but one that often stands out is the short phrase found in chapter eight.  In it, God is talking about the unfaithful priests and leaders of Israel, who have not only betrayed God in their rebellion and idolatry, but have led others astray.  God says of them that they have sown the wind, and are reaping/will reap the whirlwind.

How does this relate to us today in our pursuit of prayer?

I believe that many of us are sowing the wind– we do it in our careless words, gossip, rumor-mongering, complaining, babbling, prattling, and yes, in our half-hearted obedience, and our tepid prayers.  We often come to God, not eager to commune with him, or to hear his voice, not in humble adoration and open confession, but to complain, wheedle, and boast.  We pay lip service to his Holiness, while refusing to give up that bad habit that “isn’t really all that bad.”  We thank him for his Grace, but harbor resentment against a neighbor or family member who slighted us.  We ask for him to bring us success in our plans and ventures without really making sure if they line up with his will.  We excuse our lack of attendance at church, and our failure to spend time in God’s word.  We make rash promises to do “better” if God just gets us through this week.  We ask for his blessing, and thank him for the riches he has bestowed on us, but we turn our noses at those in our backyard who are in need.  We are bold about posting “Christian” sayings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram–almost as bold as posting about our favorite new Brew Pub or Spa trip or “almost inappropriate” joke, or latest political rant.  Except that our “Christian” posts are less entertaining and more critical of others.  (They’re usually really pretty, though– pictures of flowers or mountain streams or desert sunsets–it’s really easy to “like” and “share” a sunset!.)  We cheapen the Gospel, we cheapen the Christian walk, we cheapen prayer, when we pursue it as a hobby or a social habit.  It is not something we do only because (or only when)  it makes us feel “good” or “better”– it is something we pursue because it brings us life and peace for eternity, and it brings glory and joy to the King of Kings.

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  There is a price for this shallow, careless pursuit of something that looks and feels vaguely like Godliness.  It is the whirlwind…being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” as Paul warns against in Ephesians 4.  It is being caught up in doubts and half-truths, compromises, hypocrisy, division, scandal, and shame.  It is having to face the onslaught of detractors and persecution that come as a result of so many of us abusing and misrepresenting the very Gospel of the one whose name we carry.   “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  The words of that old hymn are no less true today– when we trifle with prayer, carrying only our selfish needs, our petty complaints, and our flimsy agendas to God in prayer, we pay a huge price.

There is another metaphor, this one in the Gospel of John, that I think helps us combat this tendency to “sow the wind”–  Jesus says of himself in John 15 that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we are faithful, we remain in him– we draw our life and strength from him– and we are fruitful.  Remaining in him, we are grounded– he provides the roots that keep us from blowing every which way.  And he provides the nourishment, and strength to grow and produce more fruit.

I say “we” because I too am guilty of having sown the wind.  The great news, in Hosea and in the Gospel of John, is that God is eager to restore us– to graft us in–to welcome us home after our storm-tossed wanderings.  Let’s get serious about abiding in God, instead of scattering the latest “feel-good” religious spam.  God, forgive me for the times I have cheapened your precious gift of prayer.  Help me to abide in you, and refrain from careless words to you, about you, and about others.

birdswater

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