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A New Start
Bible stories don’t have official names.
Even though traditional names have become attached to certain texts over the centuries, there’s still plenty of room for discussion. Many would suggest, for instance, that The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 should actually be known as The Parable of the Two Brothers. Or, better still, The Parable of the Waiting Father.
John 7:53-8:11, which we’re looking at this week, has traditionally been called The Woman Caught in Adultery. It could just as easily be known as The Men Caught in Hypocrisy.
The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in the story are definitely hoping to do some catching of their own. They want to catch Jesus. They feel confident they have the rabbi from Galilee in a straitjacket from which even Houdini could not escape. By presenting Jesus with a woman who has been pulled directly out of the wrong bed, they are forcing him to take a stand on an issue that is sure to discredit him, one way or the other.
In the Jewish mind, adultery, along with murder and idolatry, was one of the three gravest sins. It simply had to be punished. Contemporary rabbis even suggested that men caught in adultery should be buried up to their knees in dung before execution. That would send a vivid public message.
If Jesus agrees with the capital punishment of this woman, he will lose his reputation for love. Furthermore he will come into conflict with the occupying Roman Empire, which alone reserves the right to sanction an execution – which is why these same Pharisees will ultimately have to take Jesus before Pontius Pilate in order to eliminate him. On the other hand, if Jesus exonerates her, he will be accused of teaching people to violate Old Testament law. It won’t be easy to wriggle out of this mess.
What is motivating the men in the story to be so abjectly cruel?
The Pharisees were the self-appointed defenders of Israel’s spiritual integrity. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that spiritual integrity might lead them to reclaim a human life instead of terminating it. They are all about punishing blunders, not atoning for them. In their eyes, this woman is not a living, breathing, priceless bearer of God’s image. She is a pawn in a spiritual chess match in which the goal is to checkmate Jesus.
Intriguingly, Jesus at first refuses to address his adversaries. He stoops down and writes with his finger on the ground. This answers an oft-asked question: “Did Jesus ever write anything?” Obviously he did.
But what was it? Nobody knows. One interesting suggestion is that Jesus is pausing to write out, in broad daylight, the sins of the people who are accusing this woman. Regardless, this is a provocative act. Everyone in the crowd is aware that the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets by the finger of God. Is Jesus trying to introduce a new understanding of the Law?
Pressed to say something, he stands up and provides what has long been acknowledged as one of the most brilliant responses in history: “Go ahead and stone her. But let the sinless people go first.” The Greek in this sentence actually refers to sinful desires. So Jesus is saying, “You’re free to kill her, but only if you have never wanted to do the same thing yourselves.”
The trap has been sprung, but it’s the Pharisees who are the ones who are caught.
The accusers begin to drift away. Jesus turns to the woman and says, “If they don’t condemn you, neither do I. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The first sentence represents absolute grace. The second sentence represents absolute holiness. The two must go hand-in-hand. Churches that over-emphasize Jesus’ forgiveness are in danger of becoming permissive. They imply God has nothing to say except, “I love you and everything will be all right.” Churches that swing to the other side of the spectrum, however, are in danger of nurturing a culture of condemnation. “Somebody needs to stand up for the holiness of God in the midst of an unholy culture,” they declare.
Absolute grace, unchecked by holiness, leads us down a permissive path. Absolute holiness, unchecked by grace, forces us down a path of harsh accountability.
Jesus models a Third Way. Absolute grace and absolute holiness both represent the heart of God, and must not trump each other.
How is such a thing possible?
One answer is for churches to imitate the Alpine Rescue Service that operates in the rugged mountainous areas of central Europe. This group of highly trained professionals answers calls for help at all hours of the day, in all kinds of weather, from all kinds of unfortunate, unlucky, misguided, or just plain foolish climbers who get themselves into every imaginable peril.
Members of the Rescue Service never say, “You know, that guy should have known better – let him figure out his own rescue,” or, “We pulled her off that ledge this same time last year – let’s let her freeze as a warning to other climbers.” First and foremost, Rescue Service workers act with love and compassion. Without passing judgment, they risk their own lives to save others.
Ultimately, of course, those who are rescued are often required to foot the bill. And the ARS, in the interest of prevention, will proactively do whatever it can to ensure that a climber’s next adventure is both wiser and safer.
What is Jesus’ goal with this woman? It’s neither punishment nor rationalization. Instead he seeks to restore her life for God – something that is possible only if we apply both of his statements.
Jesus gives this woman a word of hope she never thought she would hear: “I don’t condemn you.” That is the first word we all need to hear from God.
But next we need to hear, “Now go live a different life. Powered by God’s grace, write a different ending to your story.”
The Pharisees believe it’s too late for that. She has already played her last card, and needs to be cut off from the community of the faithful. But the Third Way of restoration – a drama that involves both God’s Spirit and the partnership of other forgiven people – can redeem any broken human life.
None of us is irretrievably lost for God.
Perhaps, then, we ought to rename this well-worn story.
Instead of The Woman Caught in Adultery, how about The Woman Released to a Brand-New Start?
May that become our story as well.
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