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.

“This Should Not Be…”

James 3:9-10 New International Version (NIV)

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I was caught off guard last night, when an acquaintance of ours stopped my husband and me to warn us about one of our new neighbors.  “You know (person x) has been to jail twice for (X crime).”  Our acquaintance then spewed out hateful curses and fears about all the evil that might/could happen now that this new person has come to the neighborhood, and how they don’t “deserve” to live here.  I hope the fears and curses are unfounded or exaggerated.  I didn’t know how to respond–the anger and fear were palpable, and even understandable.  No one wants to live in an area noted for crime.  But…

What caught me off guard about the encounter was not the possibility that we have a neighbor with a criminal history, or that uncovering a person’s criminal past would make someone fearful or angry.  What got to me was the level of spite and viciousness, and the expectation that our reaction would be immediate and profound.

What got to me even more was my actual reaction.  It wasn’t anger at the new neighbor, but suspicion toward my acquaintance.  Why the urgency in spreading this “news”– why the visceral hatred? (The crime in question wasn’t murder, and no details of the crime were related.)  Following close on the heels of this was the thought that this was very much like some of the posts I see on social media or in my e-mail–sensational reports of crimes, and Hate Speech, and scandals–vicious stories, often exaggerated or even untrue, about everyone from people I know or used to know from my hometown, all the way up to heads of state and “respected” celebrities falling from grace.

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And how do I react to those pieces of cyber gossip and internet sensations, and “fake” news reports?  Do I eagerly spread the word, sparing little thought of the worthiness of the information or the consequences to both the guilty and innocent people involved?  Do I ever wonder what would happen if I were the subject of such wildfire rumors or smear campaigns?

Romans 3:13-18 (NIV)

13 Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit. 
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
14     Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.
18  There is no fear of God before their eyes

Is that me?  Do I, with the same mouth that praises and prays to God, curse and spread poison about people made in His image?  People I don’t even know or never have met?  Do I delight in pointing out the worst in others?  Do I rush to shed blood (figuratively) and destroy the lives of other people from the safety and anonymity of my computer or phone?  Do I play judge, jury, and executioner because it makes me feel clever or self-righteous?

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This should not be.

Lord, search me and know my thoughts and words.  Give me the strength to tame my tongue and the fingers that itch to “share” poison and lies and misery.  Help me to know the way of peace, and to speak truth about your grace and your holiness, not what I imagine my own to be.

Out of Focus

I try not to bring current events into my writings on prayer.  That said, I feel compelled to discuss some recent events in light of a growing trend–instant and polarizing reactions to small events, petty arguments, and even non-events.

Recently, a celebrity–one whose entire career has been predicated on her whining, hateful, politically incorrect rhetoric–was fired and her TV show cancelled over a single “tweet” she sent making fun of a former White House employee.  The TV show in question was a regurgitation of her popular sitcom from 30 years ago; a show that was controversial then because of its irreverence and foul language.  The new show quickly invited controversy by seeming to support the current president– also known for making offensive and cringe-worthy tweets.

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There is more than enough finger-pointing, blame-sharing, and shaming in the wake of this incident–but there is even more hypocrisy.  The people who are celebrating in the wake of this comedienne’s downfall are the very ones who were supporting her three decades ago– then she was “bold” and “brave” and “real.”  These same people were likely watching the new version of the TV show just last week.  Now she is “racist” and “abhorrent” (I guess the word “hateful” is suffering from overuse, and needs a stand-in– it was used in at least two of the tweets from her boss and colleagues) and “unacceptable”.  The people who are defending her now were the ones calling for boycotts of her show in the late ’80s for its flippant tone and dysfunctional family morals.  They are calling for more shows to be cancelled– shows they still watch; shows they discuss freely on social media; or maybe shows they don’t watch, because their friends tell them how they should react to what they’ve missed.

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My point is that controversies and “outrages” like this are becoming more common, more polarizing, and more hypocritical every week.  In the rush to judgment, we are losing our focus and missing the bigger picture.  What this comedienne said was offensive– it was juvenile, personal, hurtful.  It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair.  But it also wasn’t shocking.  The reprisal was swift and harsh, but that wasn’t really shocking, either, except in the context of the show’s success (it was the highest rated show of the season).  In the days and weeks that follow, some will regret that this action left dozens of other actors and staff without jobs, and others will cry foul at those who continue to “get away” with bad behavior and hurtful language.  But few of us will turn the spotlight on our own faults, our own use of social media or hateful language, or our own contributions to the cut-throat culture that surrounds us.

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Before I cheer or protest or react to this recent event, I want to ask forgiveness–for losing my focus.  I invited that TV show into my living room, along with those characters and their skewed values.  I watched video clips of interviews and failed attempts at the National Anthem and other scandals, and I chuckled.  I clicked on the news stories about the sitcom “reboot”, and considered watching it because it would be controversial– something to talk about, yell about, or laugh at.  And I clicked on the “news” of this comedienne’s downfall, consuming it like popcorn, and being entertained by the fallout.

Forgive me, Father, and restore my focus.  Create a clean heart in me, and be my pure vision.  Help me to stop pointing fingers at others and point others to you.

Hebrews 12:1-2 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

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