To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Most spouses go through life carrying a mental file folder called Things I Wish I Had Never Said.
They include comments made in the heat of an argument, harsh assessments of certain in-laws, and overly honest replies to questions like, “Honey, does my new haircut make me look old?”
They might even include things you learned at seminary but probably should have kept to yourself.
Early in our marriage, while I was a still a student preparing for ministry, Mary Sue told me about an especially encouraging Bible study experience. As she was reading through the Gospel of John, she had come upon the account of Jesus standing up for the woman caught in adultery. Then he had turned the tables on her accusers. The sheer grace of that famous story had filled my wife with joy.
“Oh, we were talking about that text the other day,” I said, remembering one of my New Testament courses. “It’s highly disputed, you know. It doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts.”
It was as if I had flipped the switch on a giant vacuum cleaner and sucked all the joy right out of the room.
John 7:53-8:11 is deservedly one of the most beloved biblical scenes from the life of Jesus. But those 12 verses also happen to be included in a small handful of texts that have left scholars scratching their heads. The original New Testament manuscripts – the so-called “autographs” penned by the original authors – have long since vanished. What we have today are copies of copies of copies. Many of them are in superb condition. Scholars are generally able to identify the oldest of these manuscripts, which are widely assumed to preserve the words that lie closest to the original intent of the apostolic authors and Gospel writers.
What do we find in our earliest copies of the Gospel of John? The celebrated story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is nowhere to be found.
It’s clear, however, that the early Church knew this story and knew it well. In a few later manuscripts it shows up inserted into the Gospel of Luke. In others it appears in John, but not in the place we nowadays call “chapter eight.” What’s going on here?
It’s likely that we’ll never know for sure. But a number of scholars have made an intriguing suggestion. It’s possible that some of the Church’s earliest scribes – or maybe just one of them – thought this story was so radical that it should never see the light of day. He simply struck it from the manuscript. If ordinary people found out that Jesus was willing to forgive serious sexual sins, how could the Church ever put the genie of personal holiness back into the bottle?
Even if the early Church didn’t know quite where to put this story, followers of Jesus have always been persuaded that it represents the soul of his teaching.
That’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at these words over the next four days. Here’s the classic text:
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
No one doubts that when it comes to fidelity in relationships, our culture is in turmoil. It’s reasonable to assert that half of the couples who made unconditional lifetime promises to each other during marriage ceremonies this past weekend will fail to keep them. The relational failure rate for church attenders is almost identical to that of society at large.
The response of many churches is to cling to Jesus’ words of assurance: “I don’t condemn you.” Others tend to spotlight his next comment: “Stop living like this.” The former congregations generally provide a low threshold for membership, while the latter insist that Jesus has called all of us to get serious about sin and to surgically remove unhealthy cells from the Body of Christ.
What’s the right way to navigate this passage?
It may be that for you this is not a theoretical question. You may be personally acquainted with relational wreckage. Right now you’re wondering: Am I going to emerge from this week’s reflections unscathed? Am I going to end up with a few new reasons to shudder when going to church? Or is yet another person representing the Way of Jesus going to let me off the hook and fail to challenge me to live a different kind of life?
Most important of all: Is there actually a Third Way, a strategy that can show us how to restore broken people instead of wavering between the false options of either condemnation or saying, “Never mind”?
Jesus is the one person in history who has fully embodied that Third Way.
In John chapter eight he encounters a woman who has fallen short of God’s expectations for her life. Yet he loves her without excusing her, and calls her to account without destroying her.
It’s definitely worth exploring how he walks that line.
And maybe even how we ourselves might open a new file called Things Jesus Said that I’ll Be Glad to Repeat.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.