To Others' Sin
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 24, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 8: 1-11
2 Samuel 11: 1-6
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
8 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]]
I don' t know about you, but I am glad for this morning's reprieve from John's typical gospel style. Here we have a story that is by no means simple or easy, but at least is in the style of the other gospels. Here we have a scene that is created, and we can see it. Here we have a story that begins and ends just 11 verses later. Here we have therefore a beginning and an end, where Jesus acts, the action and speaking is quick and direct, the reaction of the people is immediate, and no further expostulation from Jesus is necessary. Also, the simple words that Jesus says really stay on topic, are connected rationally to the situation, and so they make sense to us, even if they challenge us. It is not like Jesus has done so far in John's gospel, again and again, changing subjects, answering the unspoken rather than the spoken comments, and speaking seemingly about heavenly rather than earthly things. Here we have a difference. The subject is focused, Jesus comments are tight and make sense to the situation, and the situation is certainly Earthly, though there does seem to be heavenly implications, but here we have it in correct poetic order, using the concrete and earthly to highlight and illuminate the heavenly, rather than the abstract and heavenly, clouding, and confusing the implications for life here on earth. Perhaps this change is one reason why scholars believe this passage is inserted here later. It is certainly different, and older versions of the Gospel of John do not include it. But here we have it, and as I said, I'm glad for the reprieve, in style, if not in intensity of message.
It is a story that is also familiar to us. There is a woman, brought forward who has committed adultery, and she is to be stoned to death. Jesus interferes, inserts himself into the situation, and she is saved because he tells them, "he who is without sin, should cast the first stone." Of course no one casts such a stone, reflecting the certain truth that all people do sin, that all have something about them that they hide from the light, preferring instead the darkness. Now, those are the details that everybody knows, right off the bat, the "he who is without sin, cast a stone" has entered the cultural lexicon, it even has a non scriptural brother about glass houses, but what really stands out here, and what I want to look at today, are the little details that are often missed from the slogan, truism, drive-by look.
The first point, is that this situation isn't about the woman at all, instead it is about Jesus. She is simply the latest tool in their attack on Jesus. It says there in Verse 6, "They said this to test him, Jesus, so that they might have a charge to bring against him." How interesting. . . what is it that they want to say, or want him to say? What are they trying to catch him in? What crime? If we are to take this story within the context of the rest of John's gospel, despite the fact that we already alluded to it possibly not being original, it does fit from this aspect, if we are to take it within the story, Jesus' main crime that these people have against him is about breaking the Sabbath laws, twisting, and altering the laws of Moses, that have given them standing, identity, and place as God's people in the world. It seems they are doing so again, Moses' law states that this is the penalty for adultery, which is one of the Ten Commandments, just like remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. They want to see who Jesus is going to side with, this poor woman or Moses, tradition, and the law, handed down they believe from God. How can Jesus be the Son of God, when he so often seems to break the laws of God? You see how such inconsistency and perhaps we could call hypocrisy, maybe, might stop some of the people who have chosen to follow him for a second thought. So the woman is irrelevant, they are looking for any excuse. Now in the news this week, and pretty much any week you look, you can still see this tactic happening today. It is always easier to attack the person, rather than the message, and in hopes that the message falls right with them. If you want to attack the American ideal of liberty, it is easier to tear down the founders as slave holding hypocrites, than to point out that freedom is somehow harmful, though such is your true aim. This week I saw two major headlines, one about a pastor who was caught with a profile on a gay dating site, who the world was quick to point out the hypocrisy of him, not caring about him, but using his weakness as a way to attack what they saw as a voice they didn't like within Christianity. Another was the scandal about the Duggar's, you know the 19 kids and counting folks, oldest son, and the sexual crimes he committed when he was 14. The world again, outraged by his actions, but truthfully using those actions to tear down the monument that they saw as some kind of judgmental, perfect family, snooty, hypocritical, Christian voice. It is more about attacking the voice you don't agree with rather than the person, but you can use their "sin" as a platform and a tool to tear down what they stand for. What it truly reveals is the hypocritical picking and choosing of moral outrage that has been prevalent in our world since the beginning. Tear down what you disagree with, not matter what. I thought that the problem was that Christians were intolerant, hateful, and judgmental? Hmmm. . . the story is nothing new.
The other small, but glaring, detail, is that there is only one accused person, though they state clearly to Jesus that she was "Caught in the very act of Adultery." Now, there are many sins that you can do all by yourself, but adultery is not one of them. As they say, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to commit adultery. The very word, its roots mean, "a" apart from, or moving to, and "dul" other, so moving away from one to another, in latin the word had to do with all forms of corruption. . . we get the idea of unadulterated, from this line of the definition. So it doesn't mean, the sin that only "adults" do, but a real sense of corruption, but again this is not the concern of the Pharisees gathered. Their target is Jesus, not in bringing corruption to an end. So where is the man who committed this act, that they supposedly caught her in the "very act of"? Why is he not up here held to the same standard as she is? It immediately makes me think about Nathaniel Hawthorne's take on this story, The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is caught not in the very act, but with her husband not around, she is found to be pregnant and gives birth to her child, Pearl. That is how she is caught in the very act, and in his version, the story is all about how Hester's public sin and confession brings her to a place of redemption, whereas, her partner in crime, so to speak, ends up being slowly destroyed by his secret. So where is this guy that is to blame with this woman that Jesus encounters here?
Does it have to do with the last interesting detail, Jesus writing in the sand? How strange? This crowd is gathered, they are wanting to catch him in some hypocritical or blasphemous act, they are asking him what he has to say about it all, and he bends down and writes with his finger in the ground. Then he stands up, delivers the famous line about casting the first stone, and then bends down and goes right back to his writing. He says nothing else, just writes in the ground. Wouldn't it be great to know what it was that he was writing? Like maybe the name of the other guilty man, or maybe he is writing a list of the people assembled and their sins, or maybe he is writing nothing at all. . . Or does it even matter? John doesn't tell us, and though our curiosity is certainly piqued, maybe it was just the act of writing that is important. Maybe it's the subtle act of it, the bluff of it, the lack of engagement in their trap, the idea that Jesus doesn't raise to their level.
I wrote this poem this week thinking about it, it's printed in the bulletin.
What did he write on the ground with his finger,
When he bent down and wrote there in the dust?
Did those assembled, ready to throw their stones,
Feel his gentle scratching in the dirt on their hearts?
Their guilt felt something strange deep inside,
Though his finger just barely scratched the surface.
They didn't like it, whatever it was, the itch he scratched,
Because they got out of there, quick, but she stayed.
I guess her soul was already laid bare in public,
So she could take a little scratching and then go on.
This Jesus, who has something about him that makes people follow him, must be something about the way he looks at you, and the fact that he knows about people before really knowing them. . . he knows about the sins of all gathered, and something about him makes people look into the very blackness of their souls. . . the light of the world stuff, that Jesus will talk about next, and that we will look at next week, so is the scratching and writing on the ground, just symbolic of him scratching beyond the surface of the people gathered, uncovering the sins that they have hidden, and they want to keep hidden, no matter what it is, with each scratch of the dirt, the stone throwers depart, until all of them are gone. And Jesus tells the woman that there is no one left to condemn her, and neither does he. . . but he tells her not to sin again.
It is a picture of grace, not lowered standards. He tells her not to go sin again, to change her life, to make something of this second chance, but that this time around there is to be no penalty. It's how grace works. . . it forgives completely, it is unearned, it has no strings attached to it. . . which makes it some how wonderfully, free, and so completely transformative. The cynics in us say it doesn't work, that she will just go back to her old ways, that she has gotten away with something here, and not holding people to standards results in the lowering of standards. . . which is the view that the Pharisees were caught in. . . It's all caught up in the idea, "Shall then we sin, so that grace may abound," Paul says, "by no means." Grace isn't about sin, it is about transformation, and fresh start, and that feeling like you didn't deserve it, you didn't earn it, but that now you somehow owe, your life, your loyalty, your obedience, not as payment, but as a new life of new relationship.
When I was working on the discipline committee at Blue Ridge School. There are 3 student members and 3 faculty members, and when we got close to the end of the year, one of the three student members broke the rules and got in trouble. He was so embarrassed, and part of his punishment was to lose the privilege of serving on the committee any more. I fought for him to be reinstated. He had been the toughest member of the committee, the most rules oriented, he had looked at students across the way from a righteous standpoint, not understanding why anyone would ever break the rules, and it was hard for him to see any other point of view than that of perfection. He by breaking the rules himself agreed with the punishment that he should be removed from serving, which is why I thought he should serve. He should have to stand in judgment of his peers, not in a place of perfection, but in a place where he too had felt the grace of forgiveness. He thought, but wouldn't I be a hypocrite. . . I said, "who isn't to some extent?" What have you learned from this: Compassion, understanding, empathy? Important, huh. . . even towards yourself.
So with all of this going on, how does this story tell us we should handle the "sins of others?" Is Jesus saying that we have no role to play, that we are to simply accept sin as a part of life, and as the world says now tolerate it? Christians need to become more tolerant to Sin in the modern world, so as to get along with the world and attract new members? Should we just admit to ourselves that things like adultery aren't that bad? Maybe I thought that way at some point, or at least that well I sin too, who am I to say anything about the sins of others? But then I was in class a couple of years ago, and we were looking at The Divine Comedy, and I asked them what they thought was the worst sins, how they would arrange Hell if they were given the chance, would they, like Dante, put betrayal at the very bottom, deepest, and worst punishment place. Many of them did, some said, murder. . . but one of them said adultery. I asked him about it after class, and his father had committed adultery in his family, and it tore his family, his world, his life completely apart. Nothing was the same after that, trust was broken, relationship was broken, they were embarrassed and on display, and hurting. . . because his father was unfaithful. When you think about the destruction that adultery can cause, it is hard to be tolerant. . . or there is danger in such tolerance. And I'm not sure that Jesus here is "tolerant" like that because his actions are meant to transform, he tells her to go and sin no more. Many have thought that in this story, the woman here is Mary Magdelene, or if not her, someone like her, that becomes a truly devoted follower of Jesus, someone whose life is wholly and Holy transformed.
How do you think she would respond to sin, the sin of others? Would she use it like the Pharisees try to, to push forward her agenda, and attack voices that challenge their lives and authority? Would she be afraid to say anything? Tolerating sin because of being afraid of hypocrisy? Don't you see, both of those responses are about and concerned with ourselves. . . . Jesus instead is focused on the sinner, saving, and transforming the sinner. . . my that is a difference, it is a compassionate, caring, relationship building approach, and look at how those words are the very antithesis of the effects of the sin. The sin breaks relationship, and grace and compassion, focusing outward to them and not to ourselves heals, builds up, and restores relationship. Is this a picture of what Jesus does? Perhaps we could have faith enough, grace enough to try such an aggressive approach ourselves?