By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 8:3-11
Those of you who know me well might not be surprised to hear me say that I struggle with a competitive nature. Now who really knows if it is nature or nurture?
But I do recall an event in the fourth grade that might shed some light. There were two boys in my fourth grade class, George and Markey. We were good little buddies and sat near each other; in fact, I sat right next to Markey. Now, our teacher, Ms. McGough, believed that boys were genetically predisposed to being more intelligent than girls. One day a reading test was returned to us (reading was my favorite subject) and, as it turned out, I had gotten the highest score in the class. Apparently Ms. McGough had difficulty accepting that so, right there in front of the class she insinuated quite clearly to everyone that I must have copied off of Markey’s paper. Now, she didn’t come right out and say that I cheated; but it was clearly implied and I was completely humiliated and angry. I can’t remember if I said anything to my parents about it. But a judgment had been rendered about me and from that point on I was determined to prove to Mrs. McGough that I was smarter than the boys.
Now I share that story with you because I would guess that many of us can remember a time in our childhood (or even adulthood) when we were pitted against someone else. Perhaps a parent compared us to a sibling; perhaps a coach compared us to a team mate; perhaps a teacher compared us to another student; perhaps a boss compared us to a co-worker. Maybe they did it out of anger or spite; or maybe they did it because they thought it would inspire us to try harder; or perhaps they made an off-handed comment without even being aware of it. Many of us might also recall a time in our childhood when an adult that we loved and respected communicated or inferred that a particular population or category of people were not to be trusted; they were dubious and required caution when we were in their midst. However you look at it, our culture is awash in judgment though I suppose to some degree it is human nature to maintain societal order by utilizing categories and boundaries; by passing judgment in order to exercise control or coerce conformity. But we do so at a high cost.
This morning continues the Lenten sermon series A Passion for Life. Each week we consider how an event from Jesus’ passion connects to an earlier gospel story and those events are portrayed through artistic renderings of Stations of the Cross. We began by remembering the meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the last night of his life. Last week, we recalled how – after that dinner – Jesus entered the garden to pray with his disciples.
This morning’s gospel story from John sheds some light on the next event in Jesus’ passion: when the guards arrive to arrest him in the garden. Pacifist though Jesus was it’s a large contingency of law enforcement and they’re armed to the teeth. In Matthew’s gospel, we’re told that one of Jesus’ disciples makes a speedy judgment call. He grabs his sword and slices off the ear of the high priest’s slave. The violence is escalating; but Jesus puts a quick end to it. He tells his disciple to put his sword away, saying “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In other words, violence, aggression, retribution and judgment are no way to live our lives; they are in fact a pathway to death.
Throughout his ministry Jesus doesn’t show much interest in pushing-back or passing judgment… even when he’s backed into a real or hypothetical corner as is he in this morning’s story from the gospel of John. In a finger-pointing world, Jesus doesn’t have much time for attitudes of condemnation.
Now I would be remiss to not inform you that this story didn’t start out in John’s gospel. The oldest manuscripts of John that scholars have available don’t include this story. At one point in time, some thought it belonged in the gospel of Luke because a few of its themes seem to align more closely with those of Luke. Its origin is a bit of a mystery. But what’s important is that we have the story; that it was so highly valued by the Church fathers that they were committed to preserving it.
This is a story about sin and our response to it and let me just say, sin is a big deal even though most of us would rather not talk about it. It’s not a very popular topic. But we need to talk about it because not only is it real, it’s awfully destructive. If we examine the whole of scripture – particularly the gospels and the prophets – we see that sin isn’t so much about breaking a rule; sin is about relationships; sin disrupts and does damage to our relationships with God and with one another. If you’ve heard me preach very often you hopefully recall me saying that righteousness is defined as “right-ness” in our relationships with God and others. It is interesting to note that in Greek, the language of the New Testament, righteousness and justice translate the same word. So justice, also, is a relational word; a relational concept. Sin should never be evaluated in the abstract. Nor should it be played with or toyed with. Sin is not some nebulous concept; sin is that which damages our relationship with God, self or others.
In this morning’s story, some religious leaders bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. (Frankly, I’m always a little curious about how they caught her. What were they up to that they walked in on that? But that’s another topic for another day.) Now these religious authorities aren’t really interested in this woman; she is nothing more than a prop for them; sinfulness: exhibit A; a vulnerable pawn in a deadly game.
Their primary interest, their primary target, is Jesus. The woman is nothing more than collateral damage for them. They are putting Jesus to the test.
They were likely hoping that Jesus would do one of two things: 1) overlook the woman’s sin which would show that Jesus didn’t take the law or the commandments seriously; or 2) that Jesus would condemn the woman which wouldn’t make him terribly popular with the kinds of vulnerable, exploited, marginal people that seemed to flock around him. But, as usual in our gospel stories, Jesus figures out a third way, an alternative way of addressing this test.
Now, I also want to point out two additional things:
So back to the story…
These religious leaders have dragged this woman in to the middle of the crowd and they have put Jesus on the spot to render a judgment regarding her sin. But Jesus responds creatively. He doesn’t engage. He refuses to play their game. He bends down and begins to write on the ground. Now we don’t know what he wrote and it would be a waste of time to speculate. But it represents Jesus’ refusal to play this game; this destructive, retributive game. For their part, the religious leaders aren’t about to give up. They aren’t going anywhere until they get an answer. So Jesus finally stands up and gives them an answer with a question imbedded in it. What he says is “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” What one might hear is: “Are there any of you here who have never broken a commandment?” In other words, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
But I have another thought about Jesus bending down and writing with his finger on the ground. It’s a very earthy, grounded kind of action and when Jesus bends down to write a second time after his “stone-throwing statement,” it seems to me to be an action the slows down the drama. It forces introspection… whether you want it or not. This can be a moment of thoughtfulness, of soul searching… if you are willing to stand in the tension of it. But the religious leaders (and one might assume the crowds as well) slip away and it is impossible for us to know what was going in their heads. Did they go away angry that Jesus had bested them yet again; did they go away convicted of their own shortcomings; did they go away just because things were getting too intense and uncomfortable. Who knows? We’ll never know. But in time, no one remains but Jesus and the woman. It is a private moment and for the first time the woman is addressed directly. She is no longer an object, an illustration of sin put on display like an animal in a zoo. She is a human being with whom Jesus chooses to engage. I like to imagine that Jesus might have even had a touch of humor in his voice when he asks the question “where are they? Has no one stuck around to condemn you?” The question invites the woman to speak and she gives a simple reply: “no one Lord… or sir” – the Greek word there can be translated either way. And Jesus announces his verdict – or more accurately, his refusal to render a verdict. They’ll be no condemnation here today; but there will be some words of wisdom: don’t sin again. Jesus sends this woman on her way with the option – the invitation – to choose a different future; a different way forward. The path of sin leads to broken relationships and pain and often stinging humiliation. But we can choose to travel a different road; to begin again. There’s a new starting line and it’s called grace. Jesus loves do-overs because he isn’t in the business of condemnation; he’s in the business of restoration.
If you think about it, by writing on the ground and opening up quiet, reflective space, Jesus gave everyone there that day an opportunity to re-examine their life; to consider being and doing something different in the future. But we’ll never know how many – if any – of them took advantage of that opportunity.
Friends, whether you’re the one in the wrong, the one being wronged or even just an indignant, offended bystander; we all have a choice. We can move into the future focused on competition and condemnation; on blaming and finger pointing; on retribution and violence: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But if we choose to live that way, we’re gonna need a guide dog and dentures because Jesus is clear: when we live by the sword we can expect to die by it. Or we can move into the future focused on restoration of relationship; focused on the do-over that God’s grace so generously affords us: not just some of us, but all of us.
[i] See also Leviticus 20:10
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