In my office, there is a small plaque that was given to me by a friend some years ago. I place it so that I see it every day. It’s a simple plaque, with a simple sentence on it. It says, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.” Now, I know, I know. The statement is rather trite. But the reason it’s trite is because it’s true. And every now and then we Christians need to remember how true it is.
This morning, I’d like to look with you at one of the most famous stories in the New Testament, from John 8: 1-11. It’s about people who appear to be saints but are sinners, and people who are sinners and yet could become saints. I know that most of us have heard this story many times before, but suggest to you that many of us have never carefully examined it. So, I want to ask you to think with me about it for the next few moments.
Jesus enters the Temple area in Jerusalem and sits down to teach. People jam close around him to hear his words. And then, working their way through the crowd, interrupting Christ’s teaching, elbowing the listeners aside, comes a group of scribes and Pharisees who are dragging with them a woman. They make the woman stand in front of Jesus, right in the middle of that whole crowd, and with all those people looking on they say, “Teacher, we have caught this woman in the very act of committing adultery. In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”
Now, I have never done a Bible study on this passage when at this point people don’t look up and say, “Wait a minute. Something is wrong here. Something’s not quite right. After all, she was committing adultery. So, where’s the guy?” Right? I thought adultery took two, didn’t you? I thought it took two. And you know what? Back then they knew it took two as well. I know they lived a long time ago, but they knew how it works.
And for those familiar with the Bible, you know that in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 the punishment for adultery is for both the man and the woman, not just one. So, where is the guy? Alright, maybe he escaped, but why aren’t they out looking for him? Why are they just dealing with her, since the charge is against both of them? Right at the beginning, you realize something is going on below the surface in this situation.
Then there is another facet of the situation that is puzzling. Why are the scribes and Pharisees involved in this? Such a charge was usually brought by a family member, a member of the community, a neighbor. The scribes and Pharisees were some of the leading people in Jerusalem. Why in the world would much of the power structure of Jerusalem be bringing this case to Jesus? The very next verse explains. It says, “They did this to test him.” Translation: they did this to trap him. The whole situation is a set up, with the enemies of Jesus building a very neat little legal box around him, so that no matter what he says he loses.
If you think about it, you’ll see what I mean. In the first place, they are bringing a charge of adultery but have only the woman, not the man. So, if Jesus reacts to it and says what he thinks ought to happen with this woman, he could be charged with acting prematurely. He doesn’t have both defendants there. But if he doesn’t say anything, he could look weak and indecisive before the crowd and have them turn against him. So, if he says anything he could get in trouble. If he doesn’t say anything, he could begin to lose the crowd.
In addition, at a deeper level, Christ’s enemies have also trapped him between Rome and Israel. In that day of Roman occupation, it was legal for the Hebrews to have capital executions in only a few cases, and this was not one of them. So, if Jesus condemns the woman, if he sentences her to stoning, he can be charged with breaking Roman law. But if he says, “Friends, we can’t stone her because the Romans won’t let us, let’s refer the case to Rome,” he can lose his Hebrew crowd. Everybody could start saying, “He’s siding with Rome.” You start seeing the box being built around him.
At one level, Jesus could speak too quickly and be charged with giving judgment prematurely, or if he didn’t he could be thought to be indecisive and weak. At a deeper level, if he speaks he could be perceived as siding with either Rome or Israel, and either way gets him into trouble. But the box has a deeper level still. For Jesus has established a reputation as a merciful man: one preaching forgiveness and love. If he were to condemn the woman, that reputation could be exploded. Everyone could begin to say, “Wait a minute. You talk about love and forgiveness, but you didn’t act that way.” Yet, if he doesn’t condemn the woman he could be said to condone what she has done. And let’s remember, sisters and brothers, that what she has done is dreadful.
When we read this Scripture our hearts immediately go out to her. She is the obvious and immediate object of sympathy. This woman is dragged out in front of the whole crowd and shamed terribly. We hurt for her. But what she has done is dreadful. If you have never worked in a situation where adultery has occurred, you cannot imagine the pain, the broken hearts, broken dreams, broken homes, and broken lives that follow in its wake.
Please remember that, when you read God’s laws for love set down in the Bible, they are given not to inhibit love but to protect it, and if you disregard them you will wind up destroying that which you most cherish. The people in this story knew that, but it can be hard for us to remember because in some unsettling ways, 21st century America is beginning to look more and more, not like our ancestors in the people of God, but 1st century Rome. There are so many voices saying now, just like they did back then, “Whatever you feel, just go with the feeling. Just do whatever you feel like doing with whoever’s handy.” That’s a terrible way to put it, especially in church, but that’s what we’re being told. And because so many people are being guided by those voices, 21st century America like 1st century Rome is becoming populated more and more with degraded, desperate, and destroyed lives.
God’s laws are given to protect love, not inhibit it. But what is Jesus going to do? Out of love for this woman is he going to release her or out of respect for the laws that make love possible is he going to condemn her? They’ve got him in a nice little legal box, don’t they? Whatever he says is going to be wrong.
And right now before we go any further, I want you to think how many times you also find yourself in a box in this world. I want you to think how many times you find yourself feeling trapped, with every choice you’re given seemingly a loser. Maybe it’s on health issues. Maybe it’s on finances. Maybe it has to do with career. Maybe it has to do with relationships. So often in one way or another it has to do with moral or spiritual issues. But you know what it means to look around and everywhere you look you’re choosing between a rock and a hard place. When you find yourself in that situation, I want you to remember that so did Jesus! Here in this story, we see them trying to put him in a box, trap him, and hold him in. They had trapped this woman in her adultery so they could use her to trap Jesus. And it was not the only time they tried.
All through his life they were trying to trap him, to bring him under control, to box him in. Again and again they tried, until finally they got him in that last box, the one made of stone: the box with the stone sides, stone ceiling, stone floor and with even a stone rolled over the front. They buried him in that tomb; they sealed him up, completely closed away in the box, so they would never have to worry about him again. And then three days later he was more free and alive and powerful than he had ever been before! You remember that when you get boxed in! You hold on to the one who was triumphant over every box this world can put you into! When you start feeling that there is just no good option or choice left, that you are trapped and all is lost, you hold on to him! Just hold on and trust and let him guide you, and he will lead you into choices and freedom that you never knew existed.
The scribes and Pharisees think they have Jesus in a box with the legal situation. But then Jesus turns everything around, and he does it in a beautiful way. He does it by speaking, not to the charges, but to the hearts of the ones making the charges. And he does it by not speaking at all. Don’t you love that from the story?
This is the only time in the New Testament when Jesus writes, and what a time for him to decide to do it. “What do you think we should do about this woman?” the power people of Jerusalem have asked. Then, while everyone is waiting for his answer, Jesus leans over and begins writing in the dust.
Now, there are books full of speculation on what Jesus was writing. Maybe he was writing Scriptures from the Old Testament. Maybe he was listing the sins of the Pharisees and the scribes. Oooh, wouldn’t that be tasty? He could have been writing down this or writing down that, and with each theory there are justifications. The fact is, though, nobody knows. When you die and go to heaven and you’re with Jesus, sometime about 10,000 years into eternity you can say, “You know, I’ve always wondered, Jesus, what were you writing in the dust?” Do you know that one of the ancient speculations of the early church was that he was doodling? I always kind of liked that idea because I see so many of you doing that on Sunday during the sermon!
But, in fact, it really doesn’t matter what he was writing, because in the ancient East at this time if somebody asked you a direct question and you looked down and began to write, or began to brush off your sandal, or started straightening your clothes, it was a way of refusing to engage. It was a way of saying you was not going to dignify the question with an answer.
Growing up in my home, my brother and I would occasionally get into arguments and scuffles. I’m sure that as children you were perfect so you cannot identify. But every now and then we’d get into it, and we’d go running into the den to my mother or my father. I’d be saying, “Dave did this.” And my brother would be saying, “Steve did that.” And we’d both be talking and accusing the other at the same time. And every now and then, especially after a long day, my mother or father would just look down at the floor and shake their heads. They wouldn’t even answer. They’d just kind of put their head in their hands as if to say, “How long, O Lord, how long until these kids grow up and they are somebody else’s problem?”
That’s the image we’re being given. Jesus is not even going to dignify them with an answer. And so, they keep asking him questions. “What do you think we ought to do with her? What do you think we ought to do with her?” He’s just looking down drawing in the dirt. And you can almost sense the Pharisees and scribes beginning to get insecure, second guessing themselves. “Maybe this wasn’t the best idea in the world, you know, bringing this to Jesus. How is all this going to play out?”
And do you remember what would happen when you were a child and your parents had finally had enough? They hadn’t been answering, but finally – what did they do? When they straightened up and looked right at you and at that moment you thought, “O my goodness. I should not have been pushing so hard. I’m in for it now!”
That’s the dynamic you have in the Scripture. Jesus straightens up and looks at the scribes and Pharisees and speaks that famous line: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Do you see what he has done? He’s just turned the tables on them. Suddenly, nobody in that crowd is thinking about the woman! They are all thinking about the scribes and Pharisees. Right? They’re all looking at the scribes and Pharisees, thinking about how much sin these power people have in their hearts. And let’s remember that many of the people in the crowd are from Jerusalem, which is home also to the scribes and Pharisees. They’ve all known each other for years, and don’t you know that there are people in the crowd who know something about every one of those scribes and Pharisees they’d be happy to tell? All of a sudden the scribes and Pharisees are looking around at the crowd and thinking about that, and feeling pretty vulnerable.
And, as they think in this way, the scribes and Pharisees doubtless also are beginning to look inside. Suddenly, Jesus has them considering their own hearts and acknowledging to themselves the sin and brokenness and inadequacy they see there; the sin and brokenness and inadequacy everyone of us see when we look honestly inside and realize how unworthy we truly are. It’s one of the reasons you and I don’t like to look inside very much, isn’t it? One of the reasons we do it so rarely is that we don’t like to see what is often there.
According to the Gospels, though, there was something about standing in the presence of Jesus, before his holiness, that made you keenly aware of your lack of holiness. Suddenly, it’s not the woman alone standing in front of Jesus, it’s the scribes and the Pharisees as well. And so, one by one, beginning with the eldest — because unless something is wrong with a person, the longer we live the more we realize the feet of clay we all have – they all walk away.
Now, before we go any further, do you see what Jesus has done? They had trapped the woman in her sin so they could trap Jesus. He has gotten out of the trap, clearly. But do you notice how he has also freed the Pharisees and scribes from their trap? For, they are trapped as well, aren’t they; in their self-righteousness? Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:3-5, “Get the plank out of your own eye before you get the speck out of your neighbors’.” That is an exaggerated way of saying it, but he wants us to take care of the sin in our lives before getting preoccupied with our neighbor’s because self-righteousness is an especially dangerous sin. With it, you live without a sense of your own need for God, and if you don’t know you need him you won’t let him help, and without his help you are lost.
Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death,” and it doesn’t say those are the wages for this sin or that sin. We need to be clear about that, sisters and brothers. For, even as it is important to stand against the sexual sin and degradation of our era, sexual sin is not the only kind of sin there is. All of it leads to death. And for just a brief and shining moment these scribes and Pharisees are free.
Suddenly, for a brief and beautiful moment they are aware of their own sin and self-righteousness. And, for at least a moment, they are free to choose against death and for life, to choose against sin and for God, to choose the way of Jesus Christ and of salvation and of grace. We don’t know if they took it, but what we do know is that the one who set himself free from the trap has also set free those who were even more trapped. And we can pray and hope that at least some of them took the opportunity he has given.
Well, as they are leaving, he’s gone back to writing with his finger in the sand, letting this thing play out. He looks up and they’ve all gone and only the woman is standing in front of him. The crowd is still all around. You can imagine how terrified she must have been through all this. But he says, “Woman where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She says “No one, sir.” Then he says, “You go on as you were before; have a nice life.” I don’t think so! Too often that is the way this story is read. But his intention is to do for her what he had done for the scribes and Pharisees. His intention is to set her free not just from the trap of the trial, but from the larger trap of the sin which is dominating her life. For, until we are set free from that trap we are on the way to death. He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” And just like the scribes and Pharisees, for a brief and shining moment she is free. She can choose to live God’s way and she can choose to be Christ’s own. She does not have to remain spiritually where she has been.
Now, what did these people do after this encounter with Jesus? We don’t know. Clearly some of those scribes and Pharisees were there later, on that terrible Friday morning, shouting, “Crucify him.” And maybe that woman was with them. We don’t know. But maybe, maybe she wasn’t with them. Maybe she wept at his crucifixion and became a Christ follower after his resurrection. And maybe some of those scribes and Pharisees, even if they were caught up in the crowd on Friday and shouted, “Crucify him!”, maybe, just maybe they had gotten enough of the taste of freedom, freedom from the entrapment of sin, in that moment with Jesus in the Temple area that after his resurrection they claimed the freedom he was offering, accepted his forgiveness, and became Christ followers. We don’t know what happened to any of them.
The story ends with the question hanging — which, when you think about it, is appropriate, because finally our conversation has to be not about them but about us. For, as we think about the choice given each of those in the story, the more immediate question before us is, “What have we chosen?” Have we claimed the opportunity given us in Christ and the freedom it brings? Or are we still, in one way or another, trapped? What choices have we made in our lives? What choice do we make now?
It’s a simple plaque with a simple little statement up there in my office. It is so trite in some ways, but trite only because it is true. “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.” No matter how stuck or trapped or boxed in you may feel, sisters and brothers, remember: in Christ, you don’t have to stay there.