Christ and the Sinner, 1888, Vasili Polenov (1844-1927)
Early in the morning (Jesus) came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin.” –John 8:2-11
(…continued) We need rules. Good rules protect people, and God is angered when his rules are broken and people are hurt. Rules keep us in line so we can live together and get along. They teach us how to live with wisdom and faith and courage.
The Bible is full of rules. Here are just a few: “Trust in the Lord, and he will make your paths straight… Fear the Lord and shun evil… Tell the truth, don’t steal, honor your parents, do not kill, do not covet, be grateful, serve others, give thanks, be kind, be generous, love others…,” etc. The more we obey these rules, the better our lives will be. Life without rules would be impossible– but life becomes dreadful when we desire only the strict enforcement of all the rules.
That’s what the Pharisees wanted, those religious leaders with whom Jesus had so many disagreements. The Pharisees and other teachers of the Law saw only the rules, and became legalistic and judgmental, and they were very hard on people. They were like Mr. Murdstone– always critical, always watching for a mistake, always finding something wrong with someone. They had the rules right, there was no doubt about that. They got them right out of the Bible.
Jesus was also in favor of rules, but Jesus wanted to talk about more than just obedience. Jesus also had something to say about mercy and love and the forgiveness of God. But the Pharisees were not eager to hear it, so they had a problem with Jesus.
In the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in John chapter eight, the Pharisees were about to stone a woman to death for breaking the rule against committing adultery. They did not see such an awful execution as something bad. In their minds, this was a good thing to do, and they were good people to do it. They had rules about these things that went all the way back to Moses, and the good and right thing to do now was to throw big rocks at this woman until she was dead. But before they did, they decided to try and trap Jesus, this new teacher who was talking way too much about love and kindness. This would change his tune, they thought. Jesus could not publicly contradict Moses.
And Jesus did not contradict Moses. Jesus would never make a point by going against the Old Testament. That was also God’s word, rules and all. Rules are good, and even though Jesus loved everybody and was a nice guy, he never wanted to rid of the rules. He even said one time that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.
Jesus did not fall for this trap, but instead changed the whole argument. He did not contradict Moses. In fact, implied in what Jesus said was the permission to stone the woman. He did not say, “Be nice fellas, don’t kill her; adultery isn’t so bad.” Rather, he settled everything with simple sentence: “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” That was the end of argument. One by one, the stones dropped out of each hand, and everyone walked away. Implied in the words of Jesus was to say, “If you want to enforce the rules, let’s enforce all the rules. I’m sure we could find something in the Law of Moses for which to punish each and every one one of you. So anyone not guilty of anything may fire away.” But not one stone was thrown.
Jesus pointed out to them that they were being selective in their punishing of the rule breakers. After all, where was the other guilty party, the man with whom the woman was committing adultery? Why was he not dragged out for punishment? Jesus was not abolishing the Law, he was expanding it. “Okay,” he was saying, “Let’s go after everyone’s sins if that is what you want; and before long, we’ll get around to you.” No one wanted to start that process.
There are many people who would like the story to end right here. They would like a Jesus who ONLY loves and ONLY has mercy, a Jesus who has no rules about anything, especially not about sex, as unpopular as it is these days to restrict anyone’s sex life in any way. But Jesus had a bit more to say. And after this wonderful display of love and kindness and mercy, he went right back to the rules. He said, “I do not condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus agreed with the Pharisees that what the woman was doing was wrong. And for her sake, not the sake of the Pharisees or the rule-book, but for her sake, he said, “Go and sin no more.” The rules are given by God for our good and for the protection of our communities, and God still wants them obeyed. But God doesn’t just want our obedience, he wants us. He wants our hearts and our minds and our souls. So he balances his rules with his love and forgiveness. The Law and the Gospel. It is everywhere– in all of life and throughout God’s Word. We receive mercy and we obey. God wants our obedience, but he forgives our failures. And God wants us to continue to turn to him so we can receive his grace, so that our lives can be molded and shaped by his love and his Word.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner. –Luke 18:13b