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.

“Do You See Anything?”

Mark 8:22-26 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida

22 And they came to Beth-sa′ida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

Have you ever wondered why certain stories and events are recorded in the Bible while others are not?  Scholars and theologians have been trying to make sense of this story for centuries.  Why did Jesus spit on the man’s eyes?  Why did He do the healing in two stages, when He had the power to heal the man instantly?  Why did He grab the man’s hand and lead him out of town?  Why did He tell the man not to enter the village on his way home?  We are left with dozens of questions and no definitive answers.

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This is not the only gospel story (or Biblical story for that matter) that raises questions and includes inexplicable elements.  In fact, many people, wanting to discredit the Bible, point to stories like this as “proof” that the Bible is not “true”; there are too many unanswered questions, inconsistencies, gaps and omissions. Why is God silent for hundreds of years between the prophets and the gospels, or why do we have no account of Jesus’ teen years?  Why are there stories of some of the Judges, and mere mentions of others?  Why did some writings become “canon” and others became apocryphal or even heretical?  For my part, I find such stories to be proof that the Bible IS inspired by God– Truth really is often stranger than fiction!

I don’t intend to try to answer all the unanswered questions, but since I think that ALL scripture is inspired by God, I’d like to look at what this passage might have to say about prayer, sight, and walking with Christ.

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First, this story comes about because, as Jesus is coming up to Bethsaida, he is approached by a group begging him to heal their blind friend.   Jesus responds by taking the blind man by the hand and leaving– taking him out of town and away from his friends.  We aren’t told why, but I think even without explanation, there are two “takeaways” here:

  • The blind man was not asking for healing– for whatever reason, his friends were the ones asking for help on his behalf.  We jump at the chance to pray for people who ask for help and prayer, but are we as eager to pray for those who do NOT?  The passage says the friends brought the blind man to Jesus– it doesn’t say if the man came willingly, grudgingly, unknowingly, or eagerly.  His friends brought him and begged for Jesus to touch/heal him.  We should have the same passion for lifting up our friends, family, neighbors, bosses, community workers, leaders, and even enemies.
  • Jesus took the man out of town to heal him.  Nowhere in the passage does it mention that his friends followed or saw the healing take place. The story includes them, and their actions, but it is not ABOUT them.  Just because we beg God for a miracle, or ask Him to help us plant a seed or make a difference, doesn’t mean that we will get to see the result.  Often, God will remove someone from our life just as they are on the verge of changes– even miracles– for which we have prayed.  That doesn’t negate our need to keep praying, nor should it diminish our joy at the ultimate result.

Next, there is the curious circumstance of the two-phase healing.  Jesus spits, touches the man’s eyes, and then asks, “Do you see anything?”  It is a unique question from Jesus.  Normally, in the healing process, Jesus doesn’t ask, he commands.. “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:11 NIV);  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43 NIV);  He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) (Mark 5:41 NIV).  Just as curious is the answer from the man.  Yes, he can see, but there is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed.  In this instance, healing did not come instantly and completely.

My point here is not to speculate, or try to find answers as to why this story is so different.  But once again, I see a couple of points to ponder:

  • Jesus often leads us to a place of questions instead of clear solutions, and it can be frustrating and uncomfortable.  But he doesn’t leave us there, alone and with no remedy (even if it feels scary in the waiting!)  Jesus did not torment the man with a hundred questions; he didn’t blame the man for not seeing clearly right away; and he didn’t leave him unable to see clearly.  Instead, he asked the man a simple question, “Do you see anything?”
    • When I am in a season of questions, am I listening for and listening TO the questions or merely itching for an easy answer?

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  • Jesus didn’t explain his question or justify his healing.  He didn’t redirect or ask a hundred clarifying questions.  He was more interested in the man’s response.  The man could have answered, “Yes, I can see,” and walked away disappointed and half-healed.  He could have answered in anger or bitterness or sarcasm and unbelief.  “How could you do this to me?.  What good is my sight if everything looks wrong?”
    • How do I answer when Jesus leads me to a place of questions?  Am I honest with myself and with Him about what I see (or don’t see clearly)?  Do I answer with the truth, or do I answer with impatience and distrust?

Lastly, we have a curious ending to story, though one more consistent with other healing events– Jesus restores the man’s sight so that he can see perfectly.  Then he directs him NOT to enter the village when he returns home.  Once again, I want to look at what I can learn and apply from this passage:

  • God wants to bring restoration and correction.  He wants me to see clearly.   He wants me to see others clearly; he wants me to see Him clearly.  It isn’t just physical sight that is important to Him.  He wants me to get insight as well.  I don’t need to have all the answers to the many questions this passage brings up to get insight and wisdom from it, but I do need to see that there IS wisdom to be gained from studying even the odd passages He has chosen to give us in His Word.

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  • God brings healing and insight, but He also gives us direction– in this case, the man was NOT to enter the village.  Once again, we are not given a reason why.  And we are not given any information as to the man’s response.  Did he obey?  It is a curious feature of many of Jesus’ healings that He commands people not to run off and tell others.  On this point, since it happens often, I will speculate..I don’t believe that God wants us to stay silent about miracles and blessings, but I do believe that there are good reasons to pause and reflect before we spread the word:
    • So often, in our elation and wonder, we trumpet “our” miracles and blessings– as though we were singled out because of who we are or what we have done or how we prayed.  We don’t do this on purpose; we’re normally not even aware of how it sounds to others…In time, the wonder sinks deeper, the humble awareness of God’s mercy and grace replaces the initial euphoria and self-congratulation.  We bring more glory to God and less attention to ourselves.  In my excitement when God sends me blessing, do I try to take some of the credit, or take pride in His gifts?
    • Related to this is the temptation to forget that others around us are still in pain or darkness.  God’s power to heal is absolute, but He doesn’t choose to remove all pain, nor does he prevent us from experiencing suffering and tragedy.  We NEED to share stories of His power, mercy, grace, and joy, but we need to do so with loving insight into the hearts and lives of others, remembering to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)  Do I spend equal time listening to others, praying for them and sharing their burdens?
    • The commands of Jesus are not arbitrary or capricious.  We may not understand why, but we should trust that they are for our good and God’s glory.  We don’t know what might have awaited the man in Bethsaida.   What we do know is that Bethsaida was singled out (along with Chorazin) as a village of unbelief and stubborn refusal to accept miracles.  When God closes a door of opportunity in my life, do I keep trying to break in?  Or do I take the next step in faith?

So I ask myself today– “Do I see anything?”  “Do I see clearly?”  and “Am I obeying Christ’s direction for the next step?”

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Be Thou My Vision

One of my favorite old hymns is the ancient Irish tune, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I have heard it jokingly referred to as “the optometrist’s hymn.”  But there’s a lot more to unpack in the title than just a plug for good eye care.

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God’s word is full of references to sight, seeing, blindness, light, lamps, darkness, night, day, visions and dreams, foresight and prophecy, images and reflections, and much more.  God is both the source of our sight, and of our insight.  God sheds light on our deepest secrets of the past, and provides a lamp allowing us to see the obstacles ahead more clearly.  Jesus came to be the Light of the World, and bring sight to the blind, both physically blind and spiritually blind.

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Many times, we pray for answers– we want a quick solution to our circumstances, or a definitive direction for our next step.  But God sometimes wants to show us a bigger picture.  Sometimes, he wants to show us more intricate details.  Instead of asking for what we want God to give us, we need to ask for God to give us the vision HE has for our future.  He may not reveal every detail– or he may only reveal the next detailed step.  But God’s vision is clearer and bigger, and more glorious than we will ever know if we aren’t willing to look with His eyes to see.

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We also need to ask God to BE our vision– that we would see him more clearly for Who He Is!  Whatever is in our focus will appear bigger and clearer than things in the periphery.  When we allow Him to be our vision, we start to see things from His perspective, which makes all the difference.  What we see on our own is often an optical illusion– problems look bigger than they really are, hurts and grievances grow larger,  and people become distorted by the lenses or mirrors we use to view them.  And we lose sight of God’s glory, wisdom, majesty, power, and everlasting love.  But God restores our focus and our perspective, so that we see problems in the light of His power to overcome; we see people who are made in His likeness and image– people who are loved by God, even if they are in rebellion against Him.  We see the glory of God’s creation as it was meant to be, even as we see the wreckage of pollution, corruption, disease and disaster.  We see God’s mercy as lives are transformed and families are mended and justice is finally achieved.  And we see the rays of hope in God’s promises fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled.

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