This Lady is not for Stoning

This Lady is not for Stoning (John 8:1-11) from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

As a young kid I used to read the newspaper every day, or at least the cartoon section. The Daily Mail still carries a one line Snoopy cartoon. It became my thought for the day through my teenage years. As I grew up, however, I moved on to more intellectual content like the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson (I have the two volume definitive collection by the way). One of my other favourite cartoons is Calvin and Hobbes. On one occasion Calvin says, “You know what the problem is with the universe?… There’s no toll-free customer service hot line for complaints! That’s why things don’t get fixed. If the Universe had any decent management, we’d get a full refund if we weren’t completely satisfied!” Hobbes objects: “But hey, the universe is free.” To which Calvin retorts: “See, that’s another thing. They should have a cover charge and keep out all the riffraff.”  If we’re honest, we may wish that the riffraff would indeed just go away ­ or be punished.

For example, you may have been pleased to learn a few weeks ago of the capture and extra-judicial killing of Osama bin Laden. He got what he deserved. You may have expressed quiet satisfaction at the arrest of the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, removed unceremoniously from his First Class seat aboard an Air France jet about to leave New York. You may even have smiled gleefully at the exposure of a well-known footballer who took out a High Court injunctions to hide his private life. But he couldn’t suppress Twitter or silence the MP who used Parliamentary Privilege to name him.  Or you may be glad that Ratko Mladic has finally been arrested for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. You may feel a long drawn out trial in the Hague before the War Crimes Tribunal is too good for him. You may be disappointed that the lawyers seem more concerned about his human rights and his failing health than justice for the 7,500 men and boys he executed following the capture of Srebrenica. We tend to be tough on people when they do things that upset us. We clamour for immediate retribution. We cry to the God of justice to strike them down. But we also know all too well, how desperately we ourselves need God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.

In our series on Jesus and women, we have come to the controversial story in John 8. So controversial it does not appear in all the early manuscripts. It’s a highly charged story about morality, justice and mercy, law and grace.  The story can be broken into three:

Confrontation: Why Stone Throwing is so Popular (8:1-6a)
Conviction: Why Stone Throwing is so Dangerous (8:6b-9)
Compassion: Why Stone Throwing is so Unnecessary (8:10-11)

1. Confrontation Why Stone Throwing is so Popular

“But Jesus went up to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple court, 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 as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” (John 8:1-6a)

It’s early in the morning. The sun is just coming up. A large group of people have already gathered around Jesus. They want to hear him teach. Jesus is seated, the position of authority. The crowd is filling the temple court. Suddenly, the religious leaders barge in, interrupting Jesus. In front they make this woman stand, half naked, shaking, sweating, breathing quickly, her head bowed in shame and embarrassment. She won’t look at him. Jesus is seated before her. They stand in a circle around Jesus and the woman, stones to hand, ready to throw them. It is a set up. Why? Because Leviticus 20:10 insists both adulterers, the man and the woman, are to be stoned together. So where’s the man? How did these “moral police” know where to find the woman and catch her in the act?
It’s seems more likely a devious trap, like the question whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. The Law of Moses specifies death by stoning for adultery, yet Roman law forbids the Jews from carrying out executions. If Jesus doesn’t condemn the woman, He breaks the Jewish law. If he does condemn her, He breaks the Roman law. It is ironic the Pharisees condemned her for adultery while conspiring to commit murder. Lets be clear. God hates sin.

God makes it clear that sin will never have a place in His presence. We are to hate sin. We must repudiate sinful behaviour. However, it is important to remember that while God hates sin, he loves sinners. Jesus died to save people not stone people. He came to redeem, not rebuke, to buy us back from the penalty and punishment of sin. More important than our call to hate sin, therefore, is our responsibility to love sinners. Far too often we look at people, size them up, pass judgment and pick up stones to stone them. Although we would probably never actually throw stones at other people we far too often throw emotional stones. How about hurtful comments? Generalizations? Gossip? Judgmental statements? Are we ever harsh with the truth? Then we have thrown stones. And the moment we seek retribution for wrongs done, whether real or imagined, we lose something of the father heart of God. Confrontation: Why stone throwing is so popular.

2. Conviction: Why Stone Throwing is so Dangerous

Like the heat from the sun, the tension is rising. How will Jesus answer their question? The leaders are feeling pretty smug.

“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 begin stoning 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.” (John 8:6b-9)

Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, He bends down and starts to write on the ground. While we don’t know what He wrote, we do know that this is the only time in the Gospels that we read of Jesus writing something. Scholars have different opinions as to what Jesus wrote. Here are a few possibilities:

2.1 Jesus is making a list of their sins
The word “katagrapho” has the nuance of “making a list.” Jesus knows what is in the hearts of these men. Maybe he is exposing their sins too.

2.2 Jesus is writing out the Ten Commandments
Just as God had inscribed them “with His finger” (Exodus 31:18), so Jesus did the same with His. Was he saying by implication, “Guys, please don’t instruct me in the law; I wrote it the first time just like I’m doing now, and I know each one of you has broken it.”

2.3 Jesus is recording their names
Perhaps Jeremiah prophesied this very act when he wrote,

“O lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:3)

In verse 7, we read that they kept on questioning Jesus. The meaning here is that they “continued asking obstinately.” Jesus then straightens up, looks them in the eye and says:

“If any of you is without sin, let him begin stoning her.” The word Jesus used here is “sinless.” Jesus upholds the standards of God’s perfect holiness but makes it clear that there is only one person present who can judge this woman. There is only one present who is sinless. The religious leaders are made to feel uncomfortable. As uncomfortable as they have made this woman who is still standing next to Jesus surrounded by them. But her presence is actually beginning to make them feel the guilty ones. They were beginning to work out the implications of what Jesus had said. Like looking in the mirror in the morning and seeing things you didn’t like. They probably thought Jesus was going to let the woman go, but instead He upholds the Law of Moses. Adultery is sin. It violates marriage. It wrecks homes and injures innocent children. But Jesus does not say, “You had better not throw stones at her.” Rather, what He says is more like a command, “Go on then, throw stones… if you are sinless.” When a person was deserving of a stoning, they would be thrown into a pit. Then, the person who witnessed the sin would spit on the victim, pick up a stone and throw it first. The others would wait until the first stone had been thrown, then they would hurl their rocks, and keep doing so, until the victim was dead.  But that is not going to happen, at least not today.

Jesus stooped down once again and drew in the dust once more. I get the feeling that it went quiet, real quiet. Who would make the first move? What was Jesus writing this time?
Maybe just four words. Words which had been written once before, by the finger of God recorded in Daniel 5 ­ “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPSHARIN,” which means, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Now, like the woman, the leaders have been caught in the act.

Do they stone her and claim to be sinless or do they back off admitting their guilt? Verse 9 says that they begin to turn and walk away, one at a time, the oldest or the wisest first…
Now it is they who have shame on their faces. Before the supreme judge, they are admitting they are unable to judge. I love the last part of verse 9: “…until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.” Jesus is the only one qualified to judge her. I find it interesting that the woman is still standing there as well ­ have you ever thought of that before? She could have left with the others, but she stayed. Why? Was it because she felt safe near Jesus? We have seen why stone throwing is so popular and why stone throwing is so dangerous. Now let’s consider why stone throwing is so unnecessary. We have seen how Jesus was confronted, how they were all convicted. And now we will see how the woman is comforted.

3. Compassion: Why Stone Throwing is so Unnecessary

“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.” (John 8:10-11)

We actually know very little about this woman. Was she vulnerable and attractive, or loud and obnoxious? As she stood in the midst of her accusers, was she sobbing, crushed by her shame? Or was she glaring defiantly at those who had dragged her from her lover? What makes this story so beautiful, is not the woman, but Jesus, and the way he treats her.

3.1  Jesus respects her dignity
The leaders treated her as an object, talking about her in front of everyone. By contrast, Jesus spoke to her with dignity. He regarded her as a person, created in the image of God, for whom he would die one day soon. If, like the woman, you feel worthless today, remember that Jesus will always treat you with dignity.

3.2  Jesus shows her mercy
While her accusers taunted her, Jesus showed mercy. His first act of mercy was to stoop before her and write in the sand. Because the people were no longer looking at the woman. Jesus drew the stares of the crowd from the sinner to the sinless one. Jesus gave her the precious gift of mercy.

3.3 Jesus offers her grace
Condemned to death by the Pharisees, Jesus instead offered her grace and mercy. Mercy does not give us what we do deserve. Grace gives us what we don’t deserve. Jesus offered her both. He looked at her and said, “neither do I condemn you”. One of the most profound and important sentences in the whole Bible comes in Romans 8:1: “Therefore, [therefore because of all that Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross], there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). How much condemnation? None! Memorise the verse. It is your birth-right. Jesus respected her dignity, he showed her mercy and offered her grace.

3.4 Jesus speaks with frankness
Some say Jesus was too easy on sin on this occasion. They are embarrassed that the story is even in the Bible. Maybe that is why it is missing from some of the early manuscripts. But, notice that Jesus confronts this woman with her root problem.
He tells her “Go now, and leave your life of sin”. She had already been confronted and convicted by her sin. Now, Jesus is talking straight with her. Christ-followers are to leave sin, to follow Him with their whole hearts. Jesus spoke with frankness.

3.5 Jesus gives her hope
This woman needed hope for the future. The phrase, “Go now” literally means “from the now.” Jesus is forward-looking, not dwelling on the past. He is ready to give her a new life, a new identity, a new start. Jesus is not only interested in what we’ve done but also in what we can become. He loves us too much to leave us the way we are. That’s why the Christian life is a series of new beginnings. New every morning. Great is your faithfulness. Jesus respected her dignity, showed her mercy, offered her grace, spoke with frankness and gave her hope.

Confrontation: Why Stone Throwing is so Popular
Conviction: Why Stone Throwing is so Dangerous
Compassion: Why Stone Throwing is so Unnecessary

4. Application: Lay down your stones

What action steps can we make by way of application?

4.1 Confrontation
Sometimes we do need to confront others. The Bible says that we all share this responsibility. If you see me doing something that is not right, come and talk to me. If I notice that you’re involved in something that God does not permit, I’ll come to you. But when we do it, let’s make sure we do it with humility,  with gentleness, and from the desire to restore our brother or sister. But let’s make sure there are no stones in our hands, but rather grace in our hearts. Friends, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can hide your sin ­ you can’t. God knows about it already and others will eventually. Confrontation.

Conviction is good, not bad. It’s God’s way of telling us how much He cares. Without conviction, we can’t change. G.K. Chesterton once replied to a London Times newspaper question asking what was wrong with the world. His notable reply was simply: “Dear Sirs: I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.” Be courageous, not a coward. The Pharisees had their wounds and their needs exposed by Christ, but instead of sticking around to be forgiven like the woman, they went away the unforgiven ones. Don’t ever run from Jesus. Eventually we are all left, like this woman, alone with Jesus. Do you feel like your sins have begun to control your life? Face them, don’t run. Confront them. Repent before the convicting work of God’s Spirit. When you do, you can experience freedom in Christ. Confrontation, Conviction,

4.3 Compassion
Grace leads us to repentance. Romans 2:4 says “…God’s kindness leads you to repentance.” Aren’t you tired of living with your guilt and shame? Weary of trying to hide? Come to Jesus and let His grace forgive and cleanse you. Grace demands a fresh start. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. You can have a fresh start. You can start again. Make a commitment today, right now, to start again. With Jesus’ help, you can. It’s never too late. Jesus forgave the woman. It was free grace but it was not cheap grace. Forgiveness was free, but it was not cheap. It cost Him everything, and that high cost should make us shudder at the seriousness of our own sin.

In reality the woman was the blessed one that day. Her partner may well have escaped, but it was the self righteous leaders that day who left with their sins unforgiven. Don’t follow them out of church this morning. For when we have understood what Christ has done on the cross for us, how on earth can we ever carry a stone in our hand again? Or in our heart, harbour the stone of bitterness, the stone of anger or hatred or prejudice toward another? Whatever stone you may have carried here this morning, lay it down with me at the foot of the cross.

The lady that day was not for stoning, and today neither are you, because of Jesus. Lets pray.

With grateful thanks to David DeWitt and Brian Bill (on for inspiration and ideas used in this sermon, along with Kenneth Bailey and his brilliant commentary “Jesus Through Middle East Eyes” (SPCK)