The sermon I preached today in preaching class, titled “Drop Your Stones”.
At dawn, [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around 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, “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. “Now go and leave your life of sin.”
“Did you just see that?! Did you see what that woman did!? First, she sped up right behind me, riding my bumper and flashing her brights at me, then she changed lanes without using her turn signal, then she passed on the right hand side going way over the speed limit, and then… oh, and then she had the nerve to wave her hands in the air at me as though I were being the reckless driver! Can you believe that?! Was my reasonable 5 miles per hour over the speed limit not fast enough for her? What’s the deal?! I sure wish there were a state highway patrol officer that could have seen that and pulled her over for clearly breaking the law, and given her a whopping $250 fine or something. Sheesh!”
If there is ever a time when I need to be reminded that I’m not perfect, it’s probably when I’m behind the wheel of a car. This rant is a common one as I drive back and forth between my home in Cleveland and my classes here in Ashland. I mean, why can’t everyone be a perfect driver like me, right? And then today… today, on this very day, as I was driving to Ashland, rehearsing this sermon in my head as I drove, I heard this very rant start running through my head—“Why can’t the state highway patrol officers be around to see all these crazy reckless drivers as they are putting my life in danger?” And then, in that very moment, I heard the words of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson: “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” Ouch. Maybe I need to hear this message as much as anyone, right?
I mean, I love this story of the woman caught in adultery—not because it’s neat, or pretty, or because it has a happy ending—but because it’s messy. I love messy stories. And the beautiful thing about this messy story is that Jesus transforms so many different lives with just a few simple words. Everyone in this encounter leaves changed. Everyone.
We enter the scene to see Jesus, going about his business of ministry, teaching a crowd of people in the temple. They had gathered to hear what he had to say. Little did they know what a powerful message they were about to witness. All of a sudden, there comes a ruckus from the back of the room, as a group of religious leaders drag in a woman—a woman who was caught in the act of cheating on her husband, a woman who was caught in the act of prostitution, a woman who was caught in the act of producing or watching pornography, a woman who was caught in the act of living in a homosexual relationship—it could be anything. What we do know is that her sin was sexual in nature. Sure, it was probably more likely that this woman was caught cheating on her husband and not producing pornographic material, but who might this woman be today? A prostitute? A porn star? A sex addict? Anything is possible. Whatever the case, this woman was walking dead. The teachers of the law had already decided her fate before they brought her to Jesus. After all, the Law of Moses commanded that she be stoned. What would Jesus have to say to that?
The text tells us that these religious leaders were “using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing [Jesus].” No matter how Jesus responded to them, they would be able to accuse him… or so they thought. If Jesus went ahead and told them to go on with the stoning, he would be violating the Roman law, which prohibited Jews from carrying out their own executions. But if he told them to withhold their stoning, then he could be accused of violating the Law of Moses. It was the perfect trap… or so they thought.
So here they are: a woman, probably ridden with shame and guilt, standing before a man that really has the authority to condemn her to death; a group of religious leaders, waiting to trap this “Rabbi” in whatever he has to say in response to this woman; and a group of bystanders whose time of teaching has been abruptly interrupted by this whole mess. And in front of all these people, what does Jesus do?
He crouches down and starts writing in the dirt with his finger. There’s all kinds of speculation over this simple action. What did he write? Could the people around him see what he was writing? Could only the woman see what he was writing? Could the teachers of the law standing before him see what he was writing? Was the content of his writing critical? If so, why wasn’t it included in the text? Maybe in the midst of the chaotic scene, Jesus was just taking a few minutes to ponder over the situation, and dragging his fingers through the dirt helped him to focus. And then, as the Pharisees continued to hound Jesus for an answer to their demands, Jesus stands up, looks straight at them, and says: “Whoever has never done anything wrong, let him chuck the first stone at her.” And then he goes back to whatever he was writing in the dirt.
At that moment, you could probably hear a pin drop. Nobody was expecting that, were they? One by one, the stones that they had so tightly clutched in their hands dropped to the ground. One by one, those who were at one moment filled with pride and arrogance, turned away, keenly aware of their own sin, their own mistakes, their own messes. One by one they walked out… but oh, how I wish that they had been there to witness what would happen next.
Once all the accusers were gone, Jesus looked up at the woman and said, “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?” Now, I’m sure that this woman… this woman who had been so violently accused just minutes earlier was terrified. I can just imagine her… cowering, shivering, maybe covering her face, a stance of shame, and oh so afraid to even look to see if it was really true. Were her accusers really gone? And even if they were, didn’t the man standing in front of her possess the authority to bring condemnation anyway? As she slowly turned her face up and looked around the room, I imagine that she breathed a tentative sigh of relief as she responded to Jesus’ question. “No one, sir… no one is left.”
And then, looking her in the eye… deep into her soul… beyond her shame, beyond her guilt, beyond her sin, Jesus says these words that likely changed her life and her heart forever. “Neither do I condemn you. I’m not about to write you off. I’m not going to throw stones at you for what you have done. But go… go now and leave your life of sin.” It’s easy to read these words in scripture and place heavy emphasis on either the first part: “Neither do I condemn you,” or the second part: “Now go and leave your life of sin.” These very words can easily cause division.
Right now, my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is experiencing tremendous division over issues related to homosexuality. And believe it or not, people on both ends of the spectrum are quoting this very verse as scriptural defense for their arguments. Those who are open to the acceptance of homosexuality say, “Jesus didn’t condemn, so why should we?” Meanwhile, those who hold fast to the belief that homosexuality is an intolerable sin say, “Yeah, but Jesus did tell her to ‘go and leave her life of sin.” I would venture to guess that maybe both sides are getting it wrong in proof-texting this verse in defense of or condemnation of homosexuality.
The reality in this text is that Jesus does not condemn this woman for her sexual sin, and he encourages her to experience transformation in her life. The reality in this text is that by the power of his words, Jesus transforms not only the woman’s life, but also the lives of her accusers—a transformation that is witnessed in the sound of stones falling to the ground. It’s really easy to begin believing that that other person’s sin is so much worse than anything that we have done—after all, we aren’t as bad as the murderers, or thieves, or adulterers. Surely their sin is beyond the reach of forgiveness. We aren’t as bad as them—or are we?
When we come before Jesus, and allow him to confront us in our mess… when we encounter His words: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone,” “Neither do I condemn you,” “Now go and leave your life of sin”… it is then that we can begin to recognize that Jesus’ forgiveness goes beyond anything we could possibly imagine. Jesus can forgive the woman caught in adultery. Jesus can forgive the murderer. Jesus can forgive the prideful Pharisee. And Jesus can forgive you and me. When we encounter Jesus in this way, and when we hear his words to us, we recognize our own sinfulness and are able to loosen the grip on our stones, and maybe even let them fall to the ground. When we encounter Jesus in this way, we can begin to receive forgiveness and not condemnation. As we drop our own stones, we can hear the stones of others’ condemnation fall to the ground with ours in a great chorus, a “rock chorus,” if you will. And then, as quiet falls around us, we can hear Jesus’ words: “Neither do I condemn you.”
But it doesn’t end there. As we receive the forgiveness of Jesus in the hearing of those words, we hear the follow-up: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” In the Lutheran tradition, we have lines in many of our liturgies that read, “I will, and I ask God to help and guide me.” Perhaps this is the attitude that we ought to take in carrying out Jesus’ final command. We will turn from our lives of sin in order to receive his forgiveness, but we know that we cannot do it without the help and guidance of Jesus himself.
And so today, may you be reminded that everyone is transformed by an encounter with Jesus—the condemner, the condemned, and even those who witness the unfolding of it all. May you hear the voice of Jesus and put down your stones of condemnation. May you hear the stones of others’ condemnation fall to the ground. And may you hear the gentle and forgiving words of Jesus say to you, “Neither do I condemn you… Now go and leave your life of sin.”