9th March 2014
What say you?
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round 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, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin 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.’
The Ash Wednesday reading for this year is from John 8:7… What is interesting about this passage is that it didn’t actually make it into the Bible until the 3rd century. It is unlike the usual way that the rest of this gospel is written – ignoring the pro and epilogues, we will cover those another time, but if you get the chance do have a look at the ending of John’s Gospel…all three of them! It is thought that the copyist who inserted it here was possibly trying to illustrate Jesus saying that he will pass judgement on no-one later in the chapter, in verse 15.
Anyway, Jesus had returned from the Mount of Olives, and is being harassed yet again by the Pharisees. They have bought a woman to him who they claimed had been caught committing adultery (nothing is ever said about the man with whom the alleged crime took place you’ll notice!) This married woman knows there is very high chance of being killed by the then common practice of stoning under the guise of the Law of Moses, as written in Deuteronomy 22. The Pharisees tell Jesus this has to be the outcome, and are trying to test him, again. They want him to either go against the word of Moses, and as a teacher of the Jewish faith of course he could not, or they want him to go against the authority of Rome, as Roman law had deprived the Jews of their rights to stone people to death – they thought they had him!
The gospel says, When they persisted in questioning him, he straightened up and told them, "Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." In the same situation now, knowing what we do, as the woman, you would be petrified! It is a wonderful thing to say, and it should be said more nowadays if you ask me – ok then, the one of you who is without sin and has NEVER done anything wrong can judge… that would make people stop and think before acting in certain ways! Of course, there WAS someone there who was without sin – Jesus – and he and only he had every right to cast that first stone…and we can only imagine the carnage that would have occurred after that.
What would have happened if one of the Pharisees had cottoned on to this, picked up a stone, handed it to Jesus and said ,’here you go then…’ But they didn’t. Thankfully. Because they understood not a jot of whose company there were truly in. There is a wonderful part when Jesus seems to simply ignore them, and starts to write on the ground with his finger. We’re not told what or really why., and there are many, many schools of thought about this, but in Jeremiah 17:13 in some translations it is written, ‘Those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth for they have forsaken the Lord’ …but in the Pharisees’ trying to get Jesus on the back foot and make a mistake, his calm demeanour must have had them all hopping from foot to foot in madness – how funny! So, Christ neither found fault with the law, nor excused the woman's guilt; nor did he tolerate the pretended zeal of the Pharisees.
People are actually self-condemned who judge others, and yet do the same thing. All who are any way called to blame the faults of others, are especially concerned to look to themselves, and keep themselves and their lives in order. In this situation, Jesus did precisely what he came into the world to do, and that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to ensnare him, he sought to convince and convert them. Check mate to Jesus! AND he declined to meddle with the magistrate's office. Many crimes merit far more severe punishment than they meet with; but that isn’t for us to concern ourselves with. When Christ sent the woman away, it was with this caution, Go, and sin no more. If you help to save the life of a criminal, you must also help to save their soul with the same care. They are truly happy, whom Christ does not condemn.
And as we moan that our lives could be so much better, they could, remember, be so much worse. When I think about when Jesus was writing in the dust the following Lenten poem by George Herbert springs to mind…
Lord, who hast form’d me out of mud,
And hast redeem’d me through thy blood,
And sanctifi’d me to do good;
Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.
Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee.
May God bless and keep us all safe,
healthy and though able to cast a stone
be always unwilling to do so.
Christ's favour to us
in the forgiveness of past sins
should prevail with us,
So, Go then,
and sin no more. Amen