Deuteronomy 4:1-14, John 8:1-11
March 21, 2010
Years ago we were doing devotions in one of my youth groups, and one of the kids came up with a wonderful lesson. He got a bunch of small, flat, rounded stones, and painted the word “First” on each of them in white letters. And he gave them out to all of us. And the idea was, that was the “first stone.” And we were to keep that stone in our pockets, and remember this story. Whenever we were ready to judge or criticize or condemn anyone, we were to remember Jesus’ words, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Isn’t that great?
Some people feel that too many Christians are too much about condemnation and judgment. And when I read this story, I get the impression that Jesus would agree with that. His ministry was to those who the world would have been quick to condemn and judge! But instead, his ministry was characterized by what we might call “extreme mercy,” and “radical grace!” And some people are uncomfortable with that! And I wonder about us.
As we’ve said, the theme for Lent this year is “the historical Jesus.” We’re trying to dig a little deeper into the kind of person Jesus really was, rather than what we might have made him into over the centuries. And sometimes I wonder if this characteristic of the historical Jesus is the most uncomfortable for Christians. If we have “institutionalized out” any part of the character of Jesus over the years, this might be the most likely part – his extreme mercy!
This story is from John, chapter 8. It’s the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s a story of extreme mercy. It’s a story of illegal mercy. Those who brought this woman to Jesus had every legal right to stone her in their society. And they had the right to stone her adulterous partner – where ever he was! And believe me, if she was caught in the act of adultery, he was there too!! And the law said both should be stoned! We could read those laws from their law book. They’re found in both Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22.
So why bring her to Jesus? He wasn’t on the council – their governing body. Were they really interested in his opinion on the Law? Did they have reservations about that law and maybe wish to change it? It does seem pretty harsh to us, doesn’t it? Maybe it did to them, too. Or were they just trying to trap Jesus? Was this another attempt to make him look bad, and to discredit him in the eyes of the people? That’s what John tells us in verse 6. In fact, it was worse than that! They were looking for some “charge to bring against him.” They were trying to make him a “criminal” and end this tremendous popularity run he was on!
By the way, glance back over chapter 7 when you get a chance. (I hope you did your assignment for last week, too!) Because we’ve noted several times now that too often we make the assumption that these people were always the enemies of Jesus. But it’s not that simple. In fact, the Jewish leadership was divided over him! And we see that division in chapter 7. There, they even got into a debate over whether or not he could be the Messiah. That was definitely a possibility for them! But they got hung up over the fact he was from Galilee, not Bethlehem, like the scriptures said. Of course, we the readers know their error, don’t we!
We find a very interesting conversation in that chapter. John tells us that some of “the officers” went to arrest Jesus, but they came back empty-handed. And when asked why, they said, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees asked, “Have any of us believed in him?” And we actually find that some have. Here we even run into Nicodemus again! (I had forgotten about that!) In verse 51, he’s the one who insisted that Jesus be given a fair hearing. The Council was divided over Jesus all the way up to his death, and even after, as we read about in the book of Acts.
So back to chapter 8. Here, we have this woman standing before Jesus. The Pharisees are all there, and they ask this question that could have gotten him in trouble with the law if he answered one way. Or, if he answered another, it would have gone against his desire for mercy and condemned this woman to death. They thought they had him! But then this becomes another place where Jesus shows his incredible wisdom. This is like the question about paying taxes. Remember that one? If he said they should, the people wouldn’t like it, and if he said they shouldn’t, the Romans wouldn’t like it. But there again, his answer was masterful. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are Gods.”
Well, here he does the same thing! He doesn’t play into their hands and say something against the law. And he saves the woman’s life. And if that’s not enough, not only does he show the people radical mercy, he calls for it in them! “Yes!” he says. “Stone her – according to the law! But! Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” Every time I read that I am amazed, and I think of that little stone! I hope you’re amazed, too! But more than that, I hope you take it to heart. That’s the way Jesus was. That’s “the historical Jesus.” That’s the people of mercy he wants us to be, too.
Just recently, I saw the movie “Dead Man Walking.” Did anybody see that? It was a powerful story! And it was a disturbing story about a Catholic nun who reached out to a man on death row, and showed him love. And she did so while being harassed by people who were appalled by horror of the man’s crime. She was jeered at by the parents of the victims. She was taunted by the people in her town. She was threatened in her job. She didn’t condone the crime! Not at all! But she reached out in love – radical love – and stayed with the man all the way to his execution. And I couldn’t help thinking that Jesus would have done the same thing. And it wasn’t easy to think that! Sometimes we’d rather take those difficult things Jesus said and make them metaphorical. “Oh, when Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek,’ he was trying to make a point.” “He was teaching something.” It’s uncomfortable to think that he may have meant exactly that!
Here he was in that same position as that nun. Jesus honored marriage. He knew what love truly was – more than anyone. And he understood the terrible pain caused by infidelity. He understood those things more deeply than those who stood before him seeking his answer on the law. Yet still, he did the unthinkable! In this masterful way, he saved the woman’s life. He showed her his grace. And he offered her a second chance.
We are called to do the same. And that’s not easy. When he told the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus concluded, “When you have done these things unto the least of these… you have done it unto me.” And one of the things he said was, “when I was in prison you came to me…” He never said, “When I was wrongly imprisoned…” I think sometimes we kind of assume that! We think that kind of mercy doesn’t really extend to the guilty, to the bad people. But Jesus didn’t say that. He was telling us once again of his extreme mercy, saying that we are to reach out to people who may not be deserving of our grace! Maybe people like the murderer in that movie. Maybe people we meet every day!
If we think following Jesus is always easy, we may not be looking at the right Jesus! And by the way, if you think any of this is easy for me, by nature of my profession, you’d be wrong! I have the same aversion to such things as you. It’s just as hard for me. I’m just as convicted as you by Jesus’ unbelievable mercy. I need that “first stone” in my pocket!
Now, some would say, “Wait! We need laws. Without laws there would be nothing but chaos.” And they’d be right! Then they’d say, “And laws need consequences, or they have no effect.” And they’d be right again! Still others would say this. And this is more subtle. “We need laws because without laws there is no opportunity for grace.” And that’s true, too. If we have no laws, there’s nothing to forgive anyone of! Paul talked a lot about that in Romans!
So, laws are important! Don’t get me wrong! But a wise man also said. “There is no justice where laws are absolute!” Actually, that comes from Star Trek! But I really liked it! It’s still good! If there is no grace or mercy attached to laws, machines could run our justice system. There’d be no arguments, there’d be no decisions about leniency. There would just be consequences. This woman’s life would be forfeit!
Our legal system allows for mercy. We don’t like it sometimes, but it’s part of the system. And, it’s definitely part of God’s system! With God there is mercy! As the old hymn said, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty.” And consider this. If God’s mercy is infinite, and it extends even to the likes of us, who are we to limit it? And if God’s love is infinite, and it extends even to the likes of us, who are we to limit it?
Sometimes we think we’ve got Jesus pretty much figured out. That’s why we’re trying to see better the historical Jesus. And as I’ve often said about God, when we think we know, we probably don’t! For as that hymn concludes, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” What about our love and our heart?
So I want you to remember this scene today. I want you to think about this woman and the Pharisees standing before Jesus. Think of her accusers walking away, one by one. I wish I had a bunch of those “first stones” to hand out to you today. Perhaps you could make one, and carry it with you. And remember this story. Remember Jesus’ extreme mercy.
Eternal God, your love and mercy is beyond our understanding. Forgive us for the times we have failed to practice those things. Help us to do so as we try to be more like Jesus. And help us to remember your grace and mercy toward us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.