Mercy and The Wretched Woman (John 8:7)

throwing-stonesLast Friday evening, I was cheering on a church member at a softball game, and I noticed a little girl – no older than my own daughter – lugging over a extraordinarily heavy My Little Pony case. She drops the case on the bleacher beside me with a loud thud. Much to my surprise, the case was full of fist sized rocks … Not Rainbow Dash figures. Methodically, she began to pull them out one-by-one and organize them in lines on the bleacher by color and shape. Probably sensing my quizzical look, her mom began to give me what I’m sure is a well-rehearsed explanation: “My daughter’s collected rocks since she was a kid. She’s never really wanted ‘normal’ toys.” Unusual toys indeed. If you gave a collection of large rocks to most kids, it would probably wind up with a trip to the ER, a call to 911 or a large cash payment for property damage. It’s probably why the pet rock never caught on.

Rocks can be dangerous.

Case in point: Stoning was a legitimate method of execution during Biblical times. Stoning was communal. Heinous public offenses against the entire community, such as blasphemy, divination, idolatry and – yes – adultery, were punished by the entire community with stoning, which was the ultimate form of excommunication. Stoning was also gruesome and brutal. The condemned criminal would be crushed with a large rock or pelted with small stones until he died. As one could imagine, stoning was also extraordinarily unpopular with the common man.

So it’s bizarre that the term “casting stones” is now more closely associated with moral relativism, which is the philosophical position that objective right and wrong do not exist, than a method of execution. Plucked straight out of John 8:7, you’re just as likely to hear the phrase “cast the first stone” from the evangelical pulpit as on a DNA testing episode of the Maury Povich show. Offer any sort critique of whatever hot button issue is sending twitter all a-flitter (this week it’s transgenderism) and someone is bound to haul out Jesus’ words from John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” An entire unspoken framework regarding acceptance and anti-judgmentalism has been developed in our popular culture: Christians are not supposed to “cast stones” … Don’t judge others … Don’t level criticism … Don’t deem any recreational substance use or bedroom behavior as objectively sinful.

I can’t help but read the account of Jesus and the sinful woman (as found in John 7:53-8:11) and discover a deeper forgiveness and mercy at work. Jesus is talking about real rocks being hurled with life or death consequences … Not about opinions, feedback, judgments or criticisms. Here’s the Biblical text:

[2] Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. [3] The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst [4] they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. [5] Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” [6] This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. [7] And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [8] And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. [9] But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. [10] Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” [11] She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” – John 8:2-11 ESV ***

At the outset of John 8, we find Jesus teaching the crowds in the early morning in the outer courts of the Temple. Enter Jesus’ erstwhile opponents: The scribes (experts in the Law of Moses) and the Pharisees (popular religious legalists). Horrifyingly, Jesus’ common adversaries have captured a woman caught red-handed in adultery. There is no doubt about her guilt. Based on the prescribed punishment, the adulterous woman is either betrothed or married to another man. Appealing to Jesus’ reputation as a teacher of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees ask how Jesus would apply Deuteronomy 22:22: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” Should this adulterous woman be executed in accordance with the Law?

As indicated in verse 6, the whole scenario has been trumped up by Jesus’ opponents in an attempt to turn the crowds against Jesus and/or bring legal charges against Him. Jesus’ adversaries appear to have found the perfect “Catch 22” situation in entrap Jesus. OPTION A: If Jesus condemns the adulterous women to a gruesome and unpopular method of execution, He would lose credibility as a friends of the disenfranchised and – more seriously – run afoul of the Roman government. Israel is not a sovereign state at this time and only the Roman government had the right to issue capital punishment. OPTION B: If Jesus ignored the Law, He would lose all credibility as a teacher of the Law. Either way that Jesus answers the question, Jesus’ opponents assumed that Jesus would be toast. The scribes and Pharisees gleefully drop the problem at Jesus’ feet, waiting to pounce once Jesus makes a certain misstep.

The forced ethical dilemma of the scribes and Pharisees is also dripping with a ludicrous level of hypocrisy and irony. For starters, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, and it takes two people to do the horizontal mambo. So where is the dude caught in adultery?!? If the woman was indeed “caught in the act,” the identity of the male adulterer would have been known. And if Deuteronomy 22:22 expresses that both persons caught in adultery be executed, then why not bring the man and the woman to Jesus for judgment? It’s a great open question: Has the man caught in adultery been condemned or set free? In either scenario, the scribes and Pharisees have already answered the same “Catch 22” that they’re asking Jesus to now make. Hypocrisy is now served in a silver platter.

Let us also not forget that the life of an actual woman is hanging in the balance, and none of the scribes and Pharisees seem to care in the slightest about this woman’s life. No mercy. No grace. No forgiveness. Her life is just a pawn in their political gamesmanship. A woman would die simply so that they could discredit Jesus. Much less consideration is given to the absolute public humiliation and community embarrassment this woman is experiencing simply to score religious and political points.

So how does Jesus respond to this cleverly crafted trap? Interestingly, He initially does not respond with words. He starts writing in the dirt. What is He writing? We don’t know. But there is a ton of bizarre speculation and unsupported fish tales that somehow migrate their way into sermons, and I think it’s wrong to even guess. Where Scripture does not speak, we should not put words in its mouth. God can speak well enough for Himself without us trying to help. Anyway, verse 7 does seem to indicate that Jesus is hoping that they’ll just go away, but they keep pestering Jesus on the point.

So Jesus responds perfectly to these hypocrites and religious legalists: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” At a basic level, Jesus’ response is a technical reading of the Law: The first rocks must be thrown by those who witnessed the commission of that sin (Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:7). Similar to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again goes beyond the typical prescription of the Law, arguing the first rocks must also be thrown by those without sin. Which of these self-righteous, religious men had not also hypocritically engaged in sexual sin? It turns out the answer is none of them. Likely deferring to the elders in the crowd, they are the first ones to leave. The younger ones follow suit.

So Jesus, who is the only Sinless One, remains with the adulterous woman. St. Augustine vividly describe the scene: “The two were left alone: The wretched woman and Mercy.” So what does the divine Son of God do? He does not condemn her either.

So a guilty woman condemned to execution is freed. And a brassy bunch of religious hypocrites and legalists get their comeuppance.

If the account ended there, you possibly could make the sweeping overgeneralization in application that Christians should mind their own P’s and Q’s and never, ever critically evaluate anyone else’s sin. But if that application were valid, Jesus would effectually be shipwrecking the entire Law: How could the Law be enforced if no one could condemn anyone else’s actions as right or wrong? Certainly, Jesus condemns many actions as inherently morally wrong: Anger (Matthew 5:21-26) … Lust (Matthew 5:27-30) … Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) … Swearing false oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) … Retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42). And that’s just in the 1st chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a bigger problem … Jesus utters four more words in Greek: “πορεύου καὶ μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.” Translation: “Go and sin no more.” And the words “go” and “no longer sin” are imperative commands. Yes, it is clear that Jesus forgives this woman and does not condemn her of her sin. But in the same breath, He commands the woman’s repentance of that sin. In fact, it’s the second time in the book of John that Jesus commands someone to “sin no more” (see John 5:14).

In the mercy of Christ, we find Romans 2:24 on display: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” In the cross, we find the great Son of God willing to pay the penalty and bear the wrath that lowly sinners deserve for our sins. The unmerited kindness that Christ demonstrates on the cross should lead us to turn away from the sin that drove nails into His hands and feet. The love of Christ makes us into a new creation, which is totally unlike the old, sinful man (1 Corinthians 5:17). The love of Christ sets us free from the slavery of sin – not free to continue in our old life of sin (see Romans 6-8). The love of Christ compels us to surrender everything that we hold dear for the sake of His kingdom and His cause.

His kindness. Our repentance.

The gravity of John 8 seems to have gotten muddled in its crass interpretation. John 8 is a story about an execution. John 8 is the ultimate twist of irony: The condemned criminal is led to the firing squad and everyone lays down their guns. John 8 is about the Judge not condemning the criminal who has been caught red handed and is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. John 8 is about Mercy loving the wretched woman. John 8 is about life and death. And certainly you and I also stand as wretched and guilty sinners without excuse or plea at the feet of Mercy … In the cross, we are also set free to sin no more.

Simply beautiful.

John 8 is not about moral relativism. Not even a hint.

Jesus never says: “Do what feels right to you.”

Jesus never disavows, trivializes, overlooks or disregards the woman’s guilt.

Jesus never tells her its perfectly OK to crawl back under the familiar stained sheets of her adulterous lover’s bed.

Jesus never argues that love and judgment are mutually exclusive concepts.

Jesus never exchanges sin for personal choice, personal holiness for personal privacy or genuine forgiveness for disinterest.

Jesus’ grace is not cheap. Jesus’ cross is not a footnote.

Nonetheless, many vainly hide behind John 8:7, angrily lashing out at anyone who would dare point out our faults, failures and futile rebellions. Wallowing in the sick and comfortable filth of our unrepentant sin, we cower behind a false shield of John 8:7, practically daring anyone to lob a rock at us. Living on our own islands and comfortably resting on our own thrones, we become thin-skinned, numb, callous and deaf to any voice but our own.

Pathetic.

Instead of using Jesus’ words to justify our sins, we would do far better to allow Jesus’ command to “sin no more” to remind us that we are no longer slaves to sin.

We are new creations.

We are free to follow Christ.

May the kindness of Mercy upon our wretched lives move us to repentance.

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*** For the purposes of this blog, I am going to intentionally sidestep the important issue of whether John 7:53-8:11 is an authentic text. Most early reliable manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include John 7:53-8:11. My personal position is that the account is an authentic story of Jesus that migrated into the Gospel of John at a later date. But that’s another blog for another time.

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