One day, Jesus was teaching when the religious authorities – those who responsible for keeping the faith the way they thought it should be, especially in terms of deciding who was guilty of what – brought a woman to him. They announced that she had been caught in the act of adultery. Commentators for generations have pointed out the interesting fact that though she was caught in the very act, the man was not brought. Just the woman.
Her sin was punishable by death, according to the rules, according to what they had learned and inherited. It’s difficult to adequately imagine the drama of that moment. Not only was this a humiliating moment for this woman, but even more, I’m sure that she was so frightened. Those who brought her recited the rules: our book says that this woman should be stoned to death. What do you say?
The gospel writer says that they were trying to trap Jesus, as well. If Jesus said that “yes, she should be stoned”, then this woman was going to die. Did she have children? Did she have a husband? Did she have parents whose daughter was this close to death? We don’t know. But it must have been a moment when those present could feel the gravity of the situation.
Man, it’s hard to be on the front lines of new things that God is doing. I sometimes see the footage of the marchers during the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960’s. Mostly African-Americans, but you see some white people, too. Priests in clerical collars. Young people. And some old people, too. Those old white people are the ones that amaze me. I like to think, “if I was old enough back then, I would have marched with them.” But now I’m older, more honest. And I’m not as sure if I would. You can bet those people faced rejection by their friends, probably by members of their own family. It’s risky to be on the leading edge when God is doing a new thing – in your family, in the church, in society.
Jesus did not reply, but simply 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.”
This is an amazing story, such a dramatic and beautiful story in which we are given a glimpse of God’s love and forgiveness, shown in Jesus. But the scandal, I think is not simply the fact that this woman has been labeled an adulteress. The scandal is not just the public spectacle created by those eager to judge her, who failed in their crusade. The even bigger scandal is the one created by Jesus’ answer, and his declaration that this woman was forgiven, and could leave behind her life of sin. The scandal is that though he knew the scriptures and knew what people for generations had said and believed, he dared to reveal the true heart of God that challenged those old assumptions and interpretations. That, I think is the real scandal in this story, because Jesus’ response has challenged the Law of Moses. And, in a very real way, it raised a pivotal question about authority – On the one hand, what Moses had said and taught about the punishment for this sin…. And on the other, what Jesus says about who has the right to condemn and punish her. On the one side, there is the Law, and on the other, this expression of grace and forgiveness. And the situation presents an important question in a very stark and direct way: “who are you going to believe?”
Ever been a sinner who got caught in a public way? It’s one thing to be a sinner and be caught in your own problems, addictions, failures – in the secrecy of your own soul. But public? When other people know about it? That’s different. Even if you change, you’re still trapped – by opinions, rumors, memories of others.
And then of course, there’s our own memories of failures, shortcomings. They can trap us, as well. Ever been trapped by your past, by your reputation? The promiscuous teen-ager you once were? The wild party animal? The one who made this mistake or that one, the one who got caught doing that thing, whatever it was. The one who is arrogant and won’t admit they’re wrong? The one who always admits she’s wrong, and gets walked over, time and time again? Who are you? Do you believe what other people say about you, or what God has said about us, in Jesus Christ? Who are you going to believe?
We are not told what became of the woman in this story, but this I can tell you for a certainty: there were those in that town who remembered what she had done, and probably kept remembering it for the rest of their lives. Some people are like that. And there you have it again, that question of who we’re going to believe. Who has the final say: the people who said, “You’re this. We know who you are, we remember what you did”? Or does the final say lie with the man of Nazareth, who said, “I don’t condemn you. You can leave your life of sin behind”. Who are you going to believe?
My own conversion to Christianity came in a sort of a prodigal-son type way. I had blown it, in so many ways. When I reached the end of my rope, I called out to God, and I somehow believed that my prayer was heard.
There was a verse of scripture that helped me during that time of my life. 2 Corinthians 5:17: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come.” The version of that verse I learned said, “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation.” I believed that, I hoped that, but there was still a lot of the old creation in me. Occasionally you’ll hear stories – and I don’t mean to insinuate they’re not true – but you’ll hear stories about someone being miraculously released from the addiction of smoking or drinking or drugging. They are just set free. In my experience, that’s rare. That’s not what happened with me.
But over weeks, and months, and years, more and more of that old self did go away, and more and more of the new me came. But sometimes we are held captive by the memory that those other people – that reputation – that police record – is still there. How can there be a new creation when all that stuff is weighing us down and holding us back?
Well, that’s where I think the New Revised Standard Version has gotten a little closer to the true meaning of what Paul was writing about. If you’re in Christ, there is a new creation. The past really is gone, because that’s the way God works. This is a philosophy, a perspective, a worldview. Your sins really are forgiven, because God says, “I won’t even remember them anymore.”
Others may hold onto those things, but they are but mere wisps of a reality that once was. Your own guilt and regret may cause you to doubt. But will you dare believe the truth? The truth is – that old stuff is gone.
Who are you going to believe?