As we journey through this season of self-examination and reflection we call Lent in preparation for Easter, today we turn to a passage which is quite familiar to everyone but which is never included in the lectionary cycle for preaching. That is a great tragedy for the church. I’m sure the reason it is excluded is because of some textual issues. The story is not included in the earliest surviving manuscripts of the gospel of John, and it is a story which seems out of character for John. In some ways the Jesus portrayed in this story is like the Jesus we find in John’s gospel, but in other ways the story would be much more at home in Luke’s gospel. The actual story in verses 1-11 seems to be an interruption in the action in which Jesus is teaching in the temple.
The truth is, however, that all of the gospels are compilations of stories and memories which their authors put together in different orders and focusing on different stories to emphasize the important things about Jesus that stood out in their memories and would be important to their particular audience. This story absolutely has the ring of authenticity for me as consistent with the life and ministry of Jesus. Furthermore, the placement of the story is an act of genius. The first verse which follows it is the last verse I read, in which Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Taken by itself, this is a very general statement, a feel good statement: Jesus is the light, he’s the light of the world, and he’s ever shining in my soul.” Following the very specific story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, this saying becomes much more than a feel good saying. Today we will explore this story with the question, “What happens when the light shines?”
The context of the story is that Jesus has been teaching in the temple. This is interrupted by a big commotion as life breaks in. A crowd brings a woman before the religious authorities for judgment. She has been caught in the act of adultery. Scripture was clear about this situation, and Scripture was regarded as the light. As Psalm 119 says, “Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” So the Word for this case comes from Leviticus 20: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adultress shall be put to death.” So the first question that has to come into our minds as we read this story is, “Why is only the woman brought for judgment?” Was the law applied selectively, was there already a double standard for judgment?
The religious authorities, who have already been trying to trap and discredit this upstart preacher who had such a following already, saw a great opportunity to put him into a catch 22 situation with this case. They brought the woman before him as well as the cut and dried case and asked his opinion.
Why was this a catch 22 situation for Jesus? Well, on the one side he was known as the friend of tax collectors and sinners, the one who emphasized the love and forgiveness of God for all people. If he affirmed the judgment which was clearly rendered in the law of Moses, it would undermine much of his message which the people around him had responded to so gladly. On the other side, he was a Jew and often referred to the Hebrew scriptures as authoritative. If he did not affirm the Levitical sentence he would be accused of teaching people to ignore the law of Moses and being soft on crime. There did not seem to be a good answer for him to give.
So he didn’t give one. He sat down on the ground and started drawing in the dirt. He ignored the questioners. This made them madder and they became more and more shrill in demanding that he answer them, that he stand up for what he truly believed. The accusers cast themselves in a more and more unflattering light as bloodthirsty, judgmental people, which surely affected onlookers and maybe even some of the accusers eventually.
Finally Jesus stood up and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he got back on the ground and started drawing again. He did not so much undermine the law of Moses as he did undermine their right to judge her. When the light shines, it does not shine selectively just on those sins which have come to light but on all hidden, inward secrets as well. We are forced to see our own sinfulness as clearly as that of those we wish to judge. John tells us that one by one the accusers left the scene, beginning with the elders. When Jesus looked up again, only the woman was left. He asked, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” The light does not condone her actions but attempts to lead her into a better life.
I received some manna from heaven the night before writing this sermon. One of the two or three series that I watch regularly on television is “The Big Bang Theory,” about four highly intelligent science nerds and their struggle to interact with the rest of the world. This week’s show included a story involving Sheldon and his mother. His mother is a fundamentalist Christian in Texas who is constantly badgering him about his lack of faith and praying for him to change. She is single, but I can’t remember whether she is widowed or divorced.
They are very estranged, but Sheldon has decided to surprise her with a visit for some reason. When he walks up to the house he looks through the window and sees his mother having sex in the living room, quite a traumatic experience even for a grown son. He leaves with his friend Howard, very angry and condemning toward his mother. He eventually decides he has to confront her and goes to the house to do so later.
He confronts her with what he saw, and she is very much humbled and sorry for him having to see that. He condemns and criticizes her harshly, and in a funny scene she sends him to his room for talking to his mother that way. Howard comes in eventually and helps him sort through it so that Sheldon goes back out to talk with his mother.
He tells her that he loves her, but that what bothers him is the hypocrisy. He asks, “Doesn’t it contradict all the rules you have spouted to me all my life?” She admits, “Yes, and I am struggling with that right now. I’m not perfect.” He says, “Very well, then, I will condemn you internally while maintaining an outward appearance of acceptance.” With a wry smile and a very ironic statement his mother replies, “That’s very Christian of you, Sheldon.” How often is it true for us that what passes for forgiveness is an outward appearance of acceptance while internally we continue to condemn, judge, and despise? When the light shines, such questions must come up.
So, back to the story about Jesus. Would you say it is consistent with the actions and teachings of Jesus we find elsewhere? I would say so. In the Sermon on the Mount he says, “Judge not, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Asked how many times one had to forgive someone who sinned, as many as seven times, Jesus said seventy times seven. He told parables describing God as a shepherd who leaves the ninety nine sheep that are found to reclaim the one that is lost, as a father who welcomes the lost, prodigal son home with open arms. He declares that he has come to the world to seek and save the lost. He says that we must pray that God will forgive our sins in the same way and to the same extent that we forgive those who have sinned against us.
William Barclay says that two consistent principles of Jesus are demonstrated in this story. One is that only a person who is without fault has the right to judge the faults of others. The other is that the first reaction toward someone who has made a mistake should be sympathy. He writes, “We must always extend to others the same compassionate pity we would wish to be extended to ourselves if we were involved in a like situation.” George Whitefield truly grasped this one day when he saw a criminal being taken to the gallows for execution and remarked, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” (p. 7, Barclay’s Commentary, John)
Barclay also points out some good things for us to learn from the way Jesus actually dealt with this woman. The first and most obvious is that he gave her a second chance. This should give great hope to all of us. God is a God of second chances. And third. And on. If we had to believe that a mistake doomed us, we would have no choice other than despair. Jesus made clear that the fact the woman had made a grievous mistake did not have to remain the central fact of her life. Her future could be different.
Barclay compares Jesus with the religious authorities. “Jesus regarded the sinner with pity born of love; the scribes and Pharisees regarded the sinner with disgust born of self-righteousness. They knew the thrill of exercising the power to condemn; Jesus knew the thrill of exercising the power to forgive.” (p. 8)
Jesus challenged the woman. He did not just say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay.” He challenged her to aim for a higher life, to make something more of it. He wanted her to see her potential and live up to it. This was also a warning – she could either go back to her old ways with her second chance or she could change to a new direction. The story was not over but would continue to play out to the end, just as all of our lives do. (p. 9)
So the question for us to ponder on this Lenten Sunday is, “When the light of the world shines on our lives, what does it reveal? And what response is called for by that revelation? Do we have a tendency to condemn others while ignoring the logs in our own eyes? Does forgiveness just go skin deep for us or does it go all the way in? Have we truly understood and accepted the amazing good news offered by the God of the second chance?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 16, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church