(a sermon for February 28, 2016, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on John 8:1-11 and Psalm 126)
To begin with, understand that there was no misunderstanding here; no one had jumped to the wrong conclusion about this woman. Nor could she really make any excuses or escape the facts: she’d been “caught in the act,” as it were, and her offense was very real. Under Jewish law, such an act of adultery was considered to be an unpardonable sin, punishable by death through stoning. Never mind, for the moment, that in Jesus’ time such executions rarely, if ever, took place; by law such matters were to be handled by the Roman government and not the temple leadership. And also never mind that the man – oh, yes, there’s a man involved (!) – is not only nowhere to be found, he’s never even mentioned here!
But you see, at least in the context of this story, none of that matters; for what we have here is a woman who is guilty of this egregious sin of adultery, and who’s now been dragged away – by the scribes and Pharisees, no less (!) – and brought to the temple, where she’s made to stand before Jesus and the rest of the crowd that’s gathered there; no doubt disheveled, frightened and shamed. And that’s when one of those scribes and Pharisees turns to Jesus and says, rather sarcastically I would imagine, “You know the law, Rabbi… so what do you say we do with her?”
A dilemma? Absolutely; and scandalous, to say the least! That’s one reason why from the earliest days of the church, there’s been a debate as to how this particular story even fits in John’s gospel! But there it is; and suddenly, Jesus is presented with pretty much of a “no-win scenario,” which, by the way, was what the scribes and Pharisees intended all along in order to discredit Jesus. And it is a thorny issue: after all, if Jesus were at that moment to pass this death sentence upon the woman – which, by the laws of faith was perfectly legal – he’d immediately be found guilty of rebellion against the Roman government. Yet if Jesus told them instead to let the woman go free, he’d not only be in direct violation of the law of Moses, he’d be contradicting God’s own commandment against adultery; of which, as we’ve already said, the woman was clearly guilty and who, according to that same law, deserved that penance! And either way, there’s already a group of people with rocks in hand, about to become an angry mob; so the woman is essentially done for.
So what do you do… what do you do?
This is what happens, you see, when sin and judgment collide! In this one singular moment with Jesus in the temple, in which this adulterous woman is quite literally standing in judgment and quite literally between life and death, what we get to see here is what happens when our behavior clashes with accountability and with the consequences of our actions. And lest we think this is merely some vignette of an earlier and less enlightened time, know that this is an issue that continues to perplex us even today in ways not only personal, but global: on the one hand, I think we all know that there are times when people need to be held accountable for their actions; our world and our lives cannot exist apart from this sort of justice. And yet, with judgment inevitably comes punishment; but when does punishment cease to fit the crime? And when does judgment become more important to us than, say, forgiveness? To put a finer point on this, though the sin may well be very real, and the consequences deserved, when – and more importantly, how – does mercy enter in?
I think that this is what is so very beautiful to me about this text we’ve shared this morning; that Jesus finds a way for mercy to forever trump judgment, and it all has to do with an uncommon grace bestowed “for the love of it all.”
First, you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t even answer the scribes and Pharisees’ at first… he simply “[bends] down and [writes] with his finger on the ground,” doing so for what I imagine was a long, awkward moment in which these religious leaders keep on ranting for Jesus to do something about this. By the way, this is the only instance we have in the gospels in which Jesus is seen as writing anything, and we really don’t have any idea at all what it was he was writing there in the dirt. Over the years I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus might have coyly been writing down the names of those in the crowd who might have been engaged in similar activities as the woman accused (!); and I actually read this week that some feminist theologians have proposed that perhaps Jesus was confronting the issue of gender inequality head on by writing down one simple question: “Where’s the Man!” The best answer about this I’ve heard, however, is that more than likely in those moments Jesus was simply drawing pictures in the sand; that is, he was doodling… as a way of drawing attention away from the woman and to him, and thus saving her from further humiliation and embarrassment in the face of that crowd; which, if true, would have been an act of incredible caring and untold compassion.
And though we can’t ever know for sure, it really does fit what happens next. For when Jesus finally does decide to answer the scribes, he does so in a way that shifts the whole focus of the conversation to something expected but utterly real. Okay, says Jesus, “’Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’” And make no mistake, friends, this is a bold and brilliant move on Jesus’ part; because if there was one thing these highly motivated and greatly spiritually regimented scribes and Pharisees understood without a doubt is that only those with such righteousness as to be without sin had the right and privilege of such judgment. And whatever else one can say about the scribes and Pharisees, it’s also true that deep in their hearts they knew better than this; and so did Jesus. As Russell Smith has written, Jesus was basically “calling their bluff… knowing their secret motivation, [he] turns the challenge around on them… [and] then their consciences did the rest. When Jesus turned the spotlight around on them, their agenda was exposed, [and] in shame, they melted away.”
Not a single one of them could stand up to this kind of test, and so, one by one, “beginning with the elders,” they all went away until the only ones left standing were the woman, and Jesus. And Jesus asks her what turns out to be a rather obvious and rhetorical question: “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’” And when she answers that there was, in fact, no one left, Jesus says simply, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
Do you see the power of that, friends? Can you catch just how incredibly radical a statement that is? Not only is an all-but certain punishment suddenly and completely erased before it begins; not only is this woman now sent forth in freedom as though nothing had ever happened; the fact is that she didn’t even ask for this! Remember that there’s never any kind of repentance demonstrated by this woman for her great and egregious sin; and she never asks for mercy in any way or form; and she certainly never seeks forgiveness for what she’s done… she simply receives it. It comes to her as a gift… a gift of surprising generosity and utterly uncommon grace.
Grace… it strikes me, you know, that this is one of those words we use so routinely in the church that we’ve risked losing its deep meaning. We talk about good things happening to us (or bad things not happening to us) only “by the grace of God,” and that’s true – indeed, in faith we understand that all that we are, all that we have, all that we can ever hope to be comes to us by virtue of an all-powerful, all loving, and ever giving God – but even more than this, friends, is the truth that God does this all by his own intent. When we speak of grace, we are referring to that “incalculable calculation” by which God knows what we need and gives it to us even though we have done nothing to achieve or earn it. It’s a word that has its roots in the Hebrew words chen, which means to bend or stoop in kindness to another as a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and hesed, which gets translated in different places throughout scripture as “mercy” and even “love.” So grace, simply put, is the unmerited favor of God; and in that regard, friends, you and I are its prime recipients!
Our story this morning reminds us is that while we are all sinners – and the hard truth is that there’s not a single one of us in a place in our lives where we can start throwing rocks at anyone, so we’d better just start dropping them right now (!) – the good news is that God’s grace is not only greater than our sin, but also greater than our understanding. Despite our every weakness, and even given everything we do to God, one another and ourselves, God still continues to be graceful unto us; he mitigates the judgment and punishment that we surely deserve; he sets us forth on a new pathway; and he continues to offer up uncommon opportunities for life and hope, and doing so “for the love of it all.”
One other point about this: you’ll also notice that Jesus never says to this woman, “That’s alright… go back to your life as it was before and don’t worry about it.” Jesus says, “’Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’” All too often, friends, we have tended to view God’s grace as some sort of cosmic “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” in which we get to avoid the judgment that we rightly deserve; when in fact it’s much more. I remember years and years ago now a woman showed up at church and asked to speak with me after worship; and in the course of that conversation, she confessed to me that she’d been unfaithful to her husband, that this sin had been discovered, and that now she was desperate to save her marriage. She asked me if I thought that God would forgive her for this, and I answered, as we say in our own confessional, if we honestly and openly confess our sin, God is faithful and just, and by grace will forgive; and she was visibly relieved by this. But then she asked what steps I thought she would have to make to reconcile with her husband and family. And I answered, quite innocently I might add, “Well, I assume that this affair you’ve spoken of is over and done with,” and shocked, she replied, “Well, no… I can’t give that up!” Suffice to say that at this suggestion, this woman left the church quite quickly and rather angrily! And I’m left thinking, “What’d I say?”
Now, don’t misunderstand; I’m not making light of what was as serious situation; but I would say to you that this points up an important aspect of grace: that while freely given, it’s a gift that suggests change and growth in those who receive it. It’s important to note that when Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her, he is not condoning the woman’s act of adultery, but rather, by his mercy setting her forth on a new and different way of life. Likewise, every time our Lord reaches out to us in graceful love with the opportunity for new beginnings, it falls to us to seize those moments with gratitude and the determination to walk on a new pathway. And understand, I’m not just speaking about the mistakes we are called to leave behind in this life; this also applies to the blessings of God that we are called to embrace! It’s what the Psalmist was referring to in when he sang that “when the LORD restored the fortures of Zion, we were like those who dream,” with mouths “filled with laughter.” For by God’s grace, even the most difficult situations of life become imbued with possibility; even “those who go out weeping… shall come home with shouts of joy.” It’s a new pathway set before us, an future made for service unto the Lord who loved us first, and who loves us still… and it’s a gift!
Think of it, beloved… for the love of it all, an uncommon grace that leads to a life uncommon!
And for how that applies to you and to me this day, and for the ways it will carry us into that new life:
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry