GOSPEL READING John 8:1-12
1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 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. 7 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.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’
STICKS AND STONES
Several days ago as I was thinking about the subject of this message, Sticks and stones, and I couldn’t help but think about the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Of course this brought to mind several other phrases that, as children, we used to hear out on the playground. Rhymes like, Liar, liar, pants on fire. Nose as long as a telephone wire. Or, Ricky and Becca, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes Becca with a baby carriage. Or this one from many years ago: Made you look. Made you look. Made you buy a penny-book. I had to do some research to learn what a “penny-book” is, but I’m certain you can’t buy one for a penny anymore. What about this one from the ball field: We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher. And then of course the first one I mentioned, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
Most of the playground phases of children have a ring of truth to them … except that last one. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We know, from our own experience, that criticism can hurt us deeply. Yet we tell our children otherwise, whenever the other kids are being cruel. “Just ignore them,” we say. “Don’t pay any attention to what others say. “However, you and I both know that it’s simply not true. The hurtful words of others do affect us, they cause us pain. Someone once wrote a more accurate idiom that goes this way: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can sting like anything.”
A teenage girl walks by a group of ninth grade boys, and one of them whispers in an audible voice, “Hey, Lisa’s getting a little chunky, don’t you think? Oink! Oink! Of course, Lisa laughs out loud as she hurries by, and then she heads off to the nearest restroom and melts into a million tears. In the future, she’ll pay countless visits to that restroom, but now it’s to purge and vomit the salad and rice cakes she just ate in the school cafeteria. You’ve seen it happen and so have I. Or a father carelessly calls his college-aged son “lazy” or “stupid” or “clumsy” or “irresponsible.” The boy doesn’t appear to care; he just slinks off to his bedroom and turns up the stereo, but inside, a little piece of him dies of humiliation. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can sting like anything.” We do it all the time, and sometimes, we even do it on purpose.
The late Pastor Mark Jerstad, former president of Good Samaritan Society, once remarked that the tongue is the most powerful muscle in the human body. “It only weighs a quarter pound,” he said, “but in a single moment, it can destroy a person’s reputation or demolish their sense of self-worth.” And it’s been that way for centuries.
Jesus was teaching early one morning in the synagogue, when the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery. Picture the scene. He’s right in the middle of conducting worship, and they drag this woman into the sanctuary for trial. Scripture doesn’t say how she was dressed. But if she was caught “in the very act of adultery,” I doubt they gave her much time to get fully dressed before hauling her off to be executed!
“Master, this woman was caught in the very act of sleeping with a man who is not her husband. Our Law teaches that a woman such as this be stoned to death. What do you say?” “A woman such as this. Think about that phrase: A woman such as this!” The label must have stung as it landed on her ears, but just in case she missed the charge, the onlookers piled on the evidence. “She’s nothing but a whore! She’s trash! We say stone her to death.” But there’s more than one way to stone someone isn’t there. In fact, they didn’t even need to stone her. She was already dying a slow and painful death … there … in the synagogue court yard … in front of her community and in the presence of Jesus.
It’s been said that religious people are the only army who ever shoot their wounded, and that’s what’s unfolding here. One hundred hands picked up their stones of judgment. Two hundred eyes gawked at a woman such as this. But there was one pair of eyes that refused to stare. Jesus looked down at the ground and began writing in the dirt. He refused to add to the woman’s humiliation. Jesus refused to condemn her, though He was the only one there that day who was qualified to do so.
“Here’s my judgment,” Jesus announced to the self-righteous crowd. “Whoever has never sinned, you may cast the first stone.” If you’re perfect, let ’em fly! If your life is without sin, you can be the one to start the stoning. It’s no accident that the older Pharisees were the first to leave. As we age, it seems we become more aware of our shortcomings, and more honest about our own failures. Pretty soon, even the youngest, most zealous Pharisees had dropped their stones at Jesus’ feet and left the temple.
According to the rules, the woman deserved to die. She was, after all, caught in the very act! But this time, compassion won out. This time, love was more powerful than justice. “Is there no one left to condemn you?” Jesus asked. “No, sir,” the woman replied. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” If this story were to be told today, I fear that we would be the Pharisees.
We, who insulate ourselves from the real sinners of this world, by our pious speech and our self-righteous attitudes; it’s our hands that would be filled with stones. And we would aim them at anyone who didn’t think, or didn’t act, or didn’t speak, or didn’t believe the way we do. Literally, the word Pharisee means “people who have separated themselves.” Aren’t we guilty of doing that? Don’t we take pride in the fact that we’re not like those who steal, or those who are addicted, or those who live on the other side of the tracks as it were, or those whose children are ne’er do well. If we’re really being truthful we have to admit it: we’re better than them! We don’t do the things that people such as these do, so we’ve earned the right to cast stones at them. You see, that’s what the Pharisees thought… and Jesus said they were wrong. Now we need to be careful here and remember that Jesus didn’t condone what the woman did, He never said that the woman was innocent. In fact, Jesus told her to go and sin no more. This is important to remember here. Jesus forgave the woman, but told her to stop the sinful behavior. How often do people come to church expecting to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers but then have no intension of changing their sinful behavior? They want God’s grace and mercy but don’t want to give up the things and allures of this world. But that doesn’t give us the right to be judgmental. Jesus’ actions implied that she deserved the compassion — not the wrath — of those who wanted to stone her.
Now, two thousand years after the fact, we readily admit that Jesus was right, that the woman deserved a second chance, and yet we still are quick to be critical of people just like her in our day, people who make mistakes and break the rules. We can absolve her of her centuries-old indiscretion, but we condemn the 21st-century sinners. We can forgive the adulterous ‘woman, but we don’t want to forgive an adulterous elected official. We resent the actions of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, but we’ve carried on their tradition of judgment and scorn and punishment for those who get caught in the very act today. Loaded with stones … or words … or attitudes of self-righteousness, we’re proud to cast the first stone. In short, we’ve met the Pharisees and they are us! Rigid. Religious. Unbending. And wrong. There is another way, and Lent is a good time to consider it.
Robert Schuller was invited to an African American church in the deep South, to observe the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. When he stood up to preach to a sea of black faces, Schuller was overcome with emotion. Here were the great-grandsons and great granddaughters of slaves, many of whom had been humiliated and abused. But he realized it went beyond the obvious. Discrimination knows no color, religion, sex or creed. Looking out at those faces he was flooded with thoughts of the sins of humankind, one against another.
He thought about how the Jews were mistreated, tortured and killed during WWII. About how we, as a society, rounded up and incarcerated the Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He thought of the wholesale slaughter of Christians at the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS. He lamented the targeting of police officers for no other reason than the uniform they wore. Discrimination, hatred and judgmental attitudes know no bounds. Though he tried to speak, the words would not come, and Schuller spent several minutes at the pulpit… weeping. Finally, the host pastor joined Dr. Schuller at the podium, he himself now crying. The African American pastor put his arm around the white preacher and said, “Dr. Schuller, in this church, no one weeps alone.”
‘That’s compassion. That’s tenderness. And that’s the gospel. The stones you hold this night— both real and imagined — have perhaps already been targeted for someone. Those who have never sinned may take them with you. The rest of us are invited to lay them at the foot of the cross and be given a second chance. Paul in Romans chapter 12 verse 9 tells us, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Lent is a time to remember that while we are fruit inspectors, we’re not judges. God alone is our judge. And while God is the righteous judge, He is also compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)