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.

Three Things I Pray…

In the Broadway musical, Godspell, there is a simple ballad, “Day By Day,” in which the singer(s) express a desire to be closer to Jesus. Day By Day/YouTube  There are three “prayers”– 1) to see thee more clearly; 2) Love thee more dearly, and 3) follow thee more nearly.  I have heard various opinions and critiques of the musical, from the use of clown makeup and vaudeville tunes, to the marginal grammar of this song.  But I’d like to spend some time digging in to the three simple prayers.

Today, I want to look at (literally) the first prayer– “to see thee more clearly”.  There is one prayer, but I think it can be broken down into two parts.

First, I want to SEE God.  God is Spirit–an invisible essence– and yet he manifests himself in a million different ways all around us.  God is in the inky, endless blackness of a moonless night, and in the vibrant colors of spring blossoms; in the glaring reflection of the sun off the lake, or the gray and palpable mist over the meadow.  He is in the wrinkled face of my neighbor, and the exuberant smile of a toddler, and the beauty of a horse running or an eagle soaring.  But I can see all of this and more and still not see God.  I can focus on the creation and miss the creator.  I can focus on the beauty and learn nothing of the artist.  I can see the amazing variety of people in the world– skin tones and eye shapes, facial expressions, and body language, dimples and hairstyles and nose-wrinkling, and hand-wringing, and miss the Love of God for each one.

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Sadly, I can sing this prayer, pray for insight, and still miss seeing God.  I can trample His creation, dismiss His presence, and hate the people He loves enough to die for; people who bear the stamp of His image.

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And I want to see Him “more clearly”–I want to see him as he really is, and not as I imagine him to be.  We live in an age of glossy retouched photos of models and celebrities; we “see” their image, without knowing what they truly look like, and without knowing anything about who they really are inside.  In many ways, God is only slightly less invisible than the real people around us.  How many people do we ignore in a day’s time?  How many do we glance at, only to get stuck on a single detail (a hair on their sweater, or something caught in their teeth, or a receding hairline or blotchy face).   How many people surprise us by not being like the image they project?   I don’t want to see a Photoshop Jesus; a glossy, smiling image of someone who says only what I want to hear, and looks like nothing ever touches him.  I want to see the Jesus who wept over the death of his friend; the Jesus who laughed with delight as he talked with children; the Jesus whose eyes were full of compassion even as he was dying on the cross.  I want to see the Living Word of God.

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Jesus is close– closer than we think.  I want to spend today seeing him more clearly.

The Smallest Detail

Have you ever looked at a series of pictures that “zoom” in or out (or both)?  Something that seems “normal” in size suddenly becomes a tiny detail in a much larger picture.  Or one tiny detail grows large enough to show intricacies hitherto unseen.  It is mind-blowing to think of how many details there are in God’s universe–little things that go unnoticed and unappreciated every day.  But not by God.  God knows and cares about every single detail– from the  individual hairs on your head, to the variations and whorls of each of your fingerprints; from the gradations of colors in each moment of each sunrise, to the exact air temperature in each square foot of atmosphere around the world; from the wings of every butterfly to the fins of every fish– nothing escapes his notice or falls through the cracks.

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We can pray with confidence that God hears every word we say, and knows the thoughts we can’t even put into words.  I believe God loves to hear all our details.  He loves listening to us, because of his great love for us.  He wants us to hold nothing back.  This is especially true when we pour out our deepest delights and our most pressing burdens.  He wants to share them with us– to double our joy, and shoulder our pain.sea-nature-animals-fish.jpg

I was reminded about God’s attention to detail while reading His word this morning.  I was reading through one of the books of history (II Kings) in which the various kings of Israel and Judah are listed, along with short accounts of “what happened” during their reigns–some kings are given several paragraphs or a couple of chapters;  others merely a sentence or two.  In the midst of all this, there is a curious reference in II Kings 14:25.  King Jeroboam II of Israel is accounted a generally wicked king, but he did restore some of the ancient boundaries of the country, “in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher”– that’s right, THAT Jonah– the one of the giant fish and the adventure in Ninevah (see Paltry Prayer ).  How many times have I read the story of Jonah, and passed right over this reference to him in another book!  The Bible is full of such hidden hints and corroborating details.  I believe that God put them there to remind us of his great attention to detail.  The God who lists genealogies throughout his word— long lists of otherwise forgotten names;  the one who makes a point of listing palace guards and minor officials, and builders and temple workers–this God sees ME!  He sees YOU!  He hears us when we call.  He knows all of our quirks and idiosyncrasies– and loves each unique detail of our makeup.

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