August 16, 2015 Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
A Great Offense, and Greater Grace
St. John 7:53-8:11
In 1959 Washington’s Playhouse was the venue for a two-week run of “The Mark of the Hawk,” a film produced by a church group to stir interest in foreign missions. Eartha Kitt played a leading role, opposite Sidney Poitier, as a virtuous wife.
A few months later, the same theater showed “Anna Lucasta.” Once again, Eartha Kitt had a lead. This time, she played a prostitute.
The Greek word for “actor” is hupocrites. An actor – or in this case an actress – pretends to be someone she is not.
And that, of course, brings us to the scribes and Pharisees. They weren’t acting. Hypocrisy came naturally to them.
The story of the woman caught in adultery kindles our sense of injustice. Jewish custom in the first century called for a long engagement, during which period the parties were considered as good as married. Any sexual contact with a third party would indeed be seen as adultery, and the prescribed penalty in Deuteronomy 22 was death by stoning.
Either these are the circumstances in our story today or by this time the difference between adultery by a betrothed person and that of one actually married, which called for death by strangling, according to the Mishna, or commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, is blurred.
In either case, however, both the woman and the man with whom she violated the law are guilty and subject to the same penalty. In D. A. Carson’s felicitous phrase, “Adultery is not a sin one commits in splendid isolation . . .”
It’s possible that this woman’s paramour is fleeter of foot than she and made good his escape. It’s more likely that the men accusing her are more interested in punishing her than the man.
Two thousand years later, the more things change . . . A missionary who spent most of the 1990s in the Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq told me that when a young woman was suspected of sexual misconduct her father and brothers took her away into the mountains and only the males would return.
A video posted on the Internet a few weeks ago shows a Middle Eastern woman, dressed head to toe in black save for a red jacket. A few men advance on her and others quickly join in and before long the crowd surrounds her. Some of the men bring out cell phones to record the gut-churning drama to come.
Finally, one of the men produces a pistol and shoots her in the back of the head. I make no excuse for the injustice in these episodes when I say that we in the West in the 21st century have abandoned our sense of justice. In God’s eyes, adultery is a serious crime . . . and it’s now one we have normalized.
To make matters worse in the case presented in our text for today, the Jewish authorities have no interest in the woman or her sin beyond using her as bait to lure Jesus into a trap. It appears they are aware of the sexual misconduct and lay in wait to catch her out so that they might appear as witnesses against her, a requirement of the law to get a conviction . . . and an execution.
I must point out before we proceed that this passage is not included in the earliest and best manuscripts of John’s gospel. It appears to have been inserted by an unknown editor in an effort to illustrate a verse that precedes it in chapter 7, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (v. 24) and one that follows in chapter 8, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one” (v. 15).
These two chapters drip with judgment, and the editor may have wanted to press the point that man’s justice is not necessarily God’s justice.
We have no reason, however, to doubt the authenticity of the account and our purpose is not to wander off into the weeds of textual criticism but to take the Scriptures as we have received them and consider them well. I raise the point only because many translations note that this passage appears not to be original.
I think I’m finally developing a grudging respect for the scribes and Pharisees . . . for their tenacity. How many times do we see them crafting an elaborate ruse to expose and humiliate our Lord? How many times do we watch the tunnel disappear as they slam into the sheer rock face and get flattened flatter than Wile E. Coyote?
We have sex in this story, and we must not diminish the gravity of sexual sin. But we also have power, and specifically the contrast between how the Jewish leaders understand it and how Jesus uses it. I’m reminded of what Bp. Sutton taught when he was with us last weekend: Some see power as a means to dominate; others see it as that thing which enables them to serve.
Which is our Lord’s way? In our collect for the day we prayed, “O God, who declares thine almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity . . .”
The term for “scribes” is rendered “teachers of the law” in one popular modern translation. They were the lawyers of their day, experts in the legal code. Most of them were Pharisees. They interpret their role as that of avengers. Their job is to ferret out wrongdoing and come down on offenders like Mount Zion falling on them.
How else might they wield their authority? As Jesus does, to reclaim and restore the wayward soul, to drizzle her with the mercy that speaks soothingly of the Father’s grace. When the great revivalist preacher George Whitefield saw a man on the way to the gallows he said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Who among us could not say the same?
Still, we cannot escape the question: Is Jesus soft on sexual sin? We will return to it.
The Jewish leaders, reasonably enough, approach Jesus as a rabbi. They seek His interpretation of the law: Here is this woman we have apprehended in flagrante delicto. What should we do with her?
Bear two things in mind: Whatever the status of her partner in sin, her guilt is not in question and her offense is a capital crime. If Jesus does not pronounce the death sentence He is a rabbi who does not uphold the law God gave Israel through His prophet Moses. We have seen already, have we not, that He will violate it by doing work on the Sabbath? The lawyers’ judgment of Him is vindicated.
If, on the other hand, He does invoke the death penalty – and in this day it is not considered mandatory – He will forfeit all the capital He has acquired with the downtrodden as a friend of sinners and outcasts.
Surely his adversaries have Him in their clutches this time.
And their scheme is more elegant still. There is nothing these plotters would like more than for the Roman authorities to take this troublesome backwoods rabbi off their hands. The Romans allow their subject peoples considerable latitude in governing themselves, but the one prerogative they withhold is capital punishment.
If Jesus condemns her to death, the scribes and Pharisees may get their wish.
What will Jesus do? Let’s think for a minute about what He knows that His enemies do not. This is not a fact, but it seems reasonable to think He will die before the woman does. If that is the case, what He knows is that He will pay the price for this sin she has committed on this day by His sacrificial death.
He can go easy on her because He knows her debt will be paid in full. The age of law is nigh to dissolving into the age of grace. He will fulfill the law on her behalf.
And so she is every sinner who trod those dusty roads in the first century and she is each one of us gathered here today. God exists outside of time, even this God who took on flesh that He might allow it to be impaled upon His cross.
All this Jesus knows while His adversaries, thinking themselves wise, play the fools, imagining themselves both just and omnipotent. They imagine they possess the attributes of God.
Twice Jesus stoops and writes something on the ground with His finger. What does He write? That question has elicited some entertaining hypotheses. The early church fathers, who wrote voluminous commentary on the Scriptures, never mention this passage, providing more evidence that it is not original.
But by the time of St. Augustine it was part of the text and Augustine produced the appealing explanation that Jesus was offering a contrast between law and grace. The Father wrote His law on tablets of stone using His finger. Now the Son is writing the message of grace in the dust, the stuff of which man is made, with His finger.
I love this explanation. But is it accurate? John Calvin dismissed it summarily, deciding instead that Jesus stooped simply to avoid the bleatings of the lawyers and to show His disdain for them.
If you discover the answer, by all means clue me in.
How does the Lord confound them this time? According to the law, it is the witnesses of a capital crime who must initiate the stoning. And so Jesus, good rabbi that He is, says, by all means, commence the execution. The one proviso is that the one who casts the first stone must himself be without sin.
This is not some gauzy parable to demonstrate that no one is sinless. In the moment, He is referring to the provision of the law that stipulates that the witness to this particular crime must not have been complicit in it nor have been derelict in heading it off.
If these lawyers have set the woman up, as appears almost certain, they could have intervened to prevent the sin’s going forward. Jesus has flummoxed them again.
He has not thumbed His nose at the law of Moses. He has invited them to invoke it. But in the same breath he has branded anyone who takes up a stone a craven hypocrite. St. Paul wrote in Colossians 2(:3) that in Christ, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
The lawyers’ consciences seared – for the moment, anyway – they slink away.
The lesson here is not that moral purity is a requisite for passing judgment. We are called to discernment. Isaiah cautioned us about declaring evil good and good evil (5:20). The point of the story is that we must judge even-handedly.
When we judge another we impose a standard that applies to us as well. Jesus never called anyone to halfway holiness. He demanded uncompromised righteousness from all. Any shortfall is cause for deep concern – in ourselves no less than others.
At last, Jesus and the woman are alone; He speaks to her for the first time. The law requires witnesses to establish a crime and now she has no accusers. Yet the text says she is “standing in the midst.”
They’re all gone. The midst of whom? The midst of all those who have no accusation to make against her. It’s something like a Colorado Rockies game where many fans appear disguised as empty seats.
If there is no one else to level a finger of blame at her, neither will the Lord of all creation condemn her. He is the God of grace.
St. Paul wrote that where sin abounded, grace abounded more. He added, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).
That sounds good . . . but we cannot escape the fact that Jesus appears to be giving this sinful woman a pass. What, then? Does her sin not offend Him?
We will not skirt the issue. But, first . . . what about us? If our Lord and Master can find forgiveness in His heart, should we not follow suit? For you know what they say: We’re the hard cases . . . intolerant . . . judgmental. We want to dump a truckload of guilt on every wretched soul so we can watch him squirm and suffer as we parade our righteousness as did those lawyers in Jesus’ day. We’re the haters.
Is that us?
Would we be wrong if, seeing a crippled child stranded on the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on him, we rushed him and knocked him off the tracks to get him clear? Would we have harmed him? For that is what we are doing.
Our purpose is not condemnation but mercy. Our message is not condemnation but deliverance. Out of love, we desire nothing more than their salvation.
How will it come? Repent, sinner, and enter the kingdom of God. Those are the harshest, most loving, words they will ever hear.
Are we wrong? We would be wrong if . . . if Jesus had said, “Neither do I condemn you, period.”
The church some of you left to plant this one has a slogan on its sign: “All are welcome here.” This is code for, “All are not welcome there.” Are they not? Indeed they are. More than that, we will say to them, “Come as you are.”
But we do not speak in code. By “Come as you are,” we do not mean, “Remain as you are.” What we mean is, come and confess . . . come and repent . . . come and be cleansed . . . come and eat the bread of life . . . come and drink the living water.
What we mean is, give your life to Christ and live for Him and by Him and through Him. Experience the exhilarating transformation from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit. Join us, craven sinners all, in abandoning trust in ourselves to save ourselves and placing our faith in Christ to redeem us.
And when you sin again, as we do, confess and repent and beg forgiveness, as we do. We are not playing games; we are not trifling with lives. We are acting as agents of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in extending His offer of life everlasting.
Does sin offend God? Of course it does. Without justice there can be no mercy. Sin is a stench in His nostrils. But this is a story of His astounding grace: “Neither do I condemn you . . .”
Wrap up all of our Lord’s miracles, from turning water into wine to feeding a multitude with morsels of fish and bread. Pile those miracles high and tie them with a bow . . . and your package will look puny beside the grandeur of those five words: “Neither do I condemn you.”
Even so, a period does not follow them. A semi-colon does. And then these words: “go and sin no more.”
Jesus does not in this case make her repentance a condition of His forgiveness but He clearly sees it as a consequence. Divine forgiveness does not, as many suggest today, float free of the moral law. God is not Santa Claus, dropping down chimneys to dispense bundles of mercy like sugar plums.
His loving goodness in not dealing us what we deserve should evoke a response of loving obedience in us. May it have been so for the woman caught in adultery. May it be so for us. Amen.