Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Genesis 26:1-6, 12-33, Hebrews 13:17-25, John 7:53-8:11
You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the quote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s the pivotal line from a story in John’s Gospel. In this story, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who’d been caught in adultery. The prescribed Mosaic punishment was death by stoning, but the Pharisees – knowing that stoning wasn’t exactly Jesus’s style – asked him what should be done. They hoped to trap him into contradicting the law so they could bring charges against him. Jesus paused for a bit, wrote something on the ground, and then gave his famous answer. One by one her accusers slipped away until only Jesus was left. He refused to condemn her, saying only “Go and sin no more.”
The inclusion of this story in John’s Gospel is not without controversy. It doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts, and many editions of the Bible are sure to note this. It’s kind of ironic that such a questionable story became one of the most recognizable. Why does this story compel us?
Perhaps because – authentic or not – it embodies an idea that it seems we need to hear and learn over and over again. If our relationship with God is about pointing out what other people are doing wrong, instead of humbly examining our own hearts, we aren’t getting the message.
Do we as a faith community need to hear about the reality of sin and immorality? Absolutely. Do we as a faith community need to point to and single out and shame it everywhere we (think we) see it? Absolutely not.
Why is it so many non-Christians (and former Christians) see the faith as full of people ready to cast stones? Well … they’re not entirely wrong. The loudest messages shouted from beneath the Christian banner tend to be ones of condemnation. Now loudest doesn’t mean exclusive or truest or most frequent, but it does disproportionately influence what people perceive and remember.
Christ’s message isn’t one of condemnation; it is of love. We all know John 3:16 and wave it around a lot to point out who is “saved” and who isn’t, but for some reason we don’t spend nearly as much time on 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Condemnation cuts people off or turns them off, and neither wins anyone to Christ. But we like it. We struggle with (and succumb to) the same temptation as the Pharisees to twist scripture to justify punishing or imposing our will on others. Once Christianity became the dominant force of the Western world, we seemed to forget forcing the Good News on people is bad news.
Grace invites us in and asks us to leave the door open; religion is an excuse to shut people out. When Jesus tells us what is sinful, it’s not so we know when to punish or control other people; it’s so we know when we are creating a rift between ourselves and God. If other’s people sin does not affect us or exploit the innocent, it’s none of our business. In a culture where the Christian majority has learned to take offense at the idea of sharing public space with people who don’t share our faith or values (and we forget even within Christianity they are nuanced), it affects us far less than we like to think it does. Every one of us has enough planks in his or her eye to keep us too busy to worry about someone else’s speck.
We are forgiven. That is a thought that should be so humbling we can’t conceive of throwing stones. Instead, let us pass on the message of grace and love by being Christ’s open hands to the world.
Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.
Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.
Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.
Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?
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