Year C Lent 5 28/3/04 John 8:1-11
John 8:1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
How many people here are good at getting up in the morning?
Would you get up at, say, 4 a.m. if Barclays Bank in Knebworth were giving £1,000 to those who were queuing outside their office tomorrow morning?
It is, perhaps appropriate that on the first day of British Summer Time*, when we have 'lost' an hours sleep, that we wonder what motivated the teachers of the law and the Pharisees to get up early and bring an adulterous woman before Jesus.
*For non UK residents; British Summer Time is one of our quaint traditions when the clocks are put forward by an hour overnight. On 31st October we put them back an hour to Greenwich Mean Time.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group
There has recently been the suggesting that police should have the powers to send under-age drinkers into pubs to trap those who serve young drinkers to discourage 'binge drinking'.
The situation in today's gospel has the appearance of a sting or set up.
The Jewish religious leaders would probably not have arisen early in the morning unless there was a special reason for doing so. They forced their way into the centre of the group and interrupted Jesus' teaching by posing a question that created an apparently impossible dilemma for him.
4 and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery." 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"
They called him "Teacher" but were less respectful the day before when the Pharisees sent the Temple Guards to arrest Jesus and, when they did not, accused Jesus of deceiving them.
The guilt of the woman was certain; she had been "caught in the act." One wonders how at least two people, the minimum number of witnesses required to stone someone, saw her unless it was planned. We do not know how long the religious leaders had known of this adultery. They could have held her and waited for the right moment to test Jesus.
They misquoted the law of Moses, which required that the adulterer as well as the adultress be punished. "If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife ... you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death" (Deut 22.22-4).
Jesus, however, didn't appear to question these things, but faced up to the question posed by the leaders, eventually.
The dilemma that the scribes and Pharisees posed was this: The woman was guilty, and under Mosaic law she would be condemned to death. It was unlikely at this time that a woman caught in adultery would have been stoned to death. Only the Roman prefect had the authority to impose the death penalty.
However, if Jesus refused to confirm the death penalty, he could be charged with contradicting the law of God and would himself be liable to condemnation. With Jesus' reputation for mixing with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners they probably expected this answer.
If, on the other hand, he confirmed the verdict of the religious leaders he would lose his reputation for compassion and could have been reported to the Romans for inciting others to carry out the death penalty.
6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
The question was emphatic: "Now what do you say?"
Jesus made no reply but "bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger."
There are several theories as to what, if anything he wrote.
Some say he may have simply made marks in the dust to cover his embarrassment. I would suggest this is unlikely because he had spent a lot of time with those considered immoral by the Pharisees and, therfore, would not have been so easily embarrassed.
Others suggest he may have started to make a list of the sins of those who stood in front of him. I think that this is unlikely too as his words, and the consciences of his listeners, was enough to convict them of sin in verse 7 to 9.
I think it is most likely that Jesus did this as a way of buying time, making the accusers realise that he would not be bossed about or rushed into saying something impetuous. It probably also had the effect of making the accusers impatient, even angry. Certainly they kept on questioning him, verse 7. When he was ready Jesus finally stood up and replied, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he resumed his writing.
Jesus avoided the trap set for him and creates one for his questioners.
His reply put the dilemma back on his questioners. Adultery would normally have no witnesses, since its nature would demand privacy. Either the witnesses became such by accident, which would be unusual; or they were present purposely to create the trap for Jesus, in which case they themselves were guilty. According to Jewish law, in any case of capital punishment the witnesses must begin the stoning.
Jesus may have implied that some or all of them were guilty of condoning adultery or even of committing adultery with this woman. Or he could have been speaking about other sins when he said If any one of you is without sin. Either way, none of them could stand up and say that they were morally perfect and were, therefore, qualified to condemn this adultress to death.
9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 "No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
Jesus aim here was not only to bring the prisoner to repentance but also the prosecutors.
The truth of his words began to sink in as each man began to put aside his own moral outrage and concentrated on his own shortcomings. The fact that the older ones went first may not necessarily mean that they were morally inferior to the younger ones. Perhaps the wisdom that comes with age meant that the older ones found it easier to face up to their sinfulness.
The only man who was left with the woman was the only one who was qualified to condemn her. Jesus was the only one who could condemn her of sin, for he was, and is, sinless.
Jesus calls her 'Woman', a term of respect. Her accusers were not interested in her. They wanted to use her for their own ends, and therefore, were just as guilty as the man who committed adultery. Their sole concern was to trap Jesus, not the moral welfare of the woman.
Whilst Jesus did not condemn her, he did not condone what she had done or proclaim her to be innocent. He showed mercy to her and upheld the laws teaching on the importance of marital faithfulness. He forgave her and this had to lead to change for her. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
This woman may have heard of the way Jesus mixed with sinners and forgave people. Now she was experiencing it for herself. This was in contrast to the religious leaders who treated her like a thing to be exploited and condemned.
One day Jesus will judge everybody. People who will either be acquitted if they have lived a perfect life, or if they have placed their life into the hands of Jesus who had paid the price for the forgiveness of everyone who trusts in him.
However, his role when he was on earth and also today is to bring sinners to repentance.
John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Samuel Colgate, the founder of the
Colgate business empire, was a devout Christian, and he told of an incident
that took place in the church he attended. During an evangelistic service,
an invitation was given at the close of the sermon for all those who
wished to turn their lives over to Christ and be forgiven. One of the
first persons to walk down the aisle and kneel at the altar was a well-known
prostitute. She knelt in very real repentance, she wept, she asked God
to forgive her, and meanwhile the rest of the congregation looked on
approvingly at what she was doing. Then she stood and testified that
she believed God had forgiven her for her past life, and she now wanted
to become a member of the church. For a few moments, the silence was
Finally, Samuel Colgate arose and said, "I guess we blundered when we prayed that the Lord would save sinners. We forgot to specify what kind of sinners. We'd better ask him to forgive us for this oversight. The Holy Spirit has touched this woman and made her truly repentant, but the Lord apparently doesn't understand that she's not the type we want him to rescue. We'd better spell it out for him just which sinners we had in mind." Immediately, a motion was made and unanimously approved that the woman be accepted into membership in the congregation.
God accepts us as we are. There's not a sin too black, not a deed too awful, not a thought too horrible for him to forgive.
The problem for many of us is that there is a Pharisee lurking within us. We know that God accepts miserable sinners like us because of his undeserved favour, but underneath we would like to think that we have contributed to our salvation. That God has chosen us because we adhere to more of his rules than most people do; that we are more clever than most in our understanding of theology; that we are a nicer person than others.
The next step from this is that we become judges. That we expect people to behave in the way that we want. That we will only forgive people on our terms. This danger caused someone to write
"When "forgiveness" puts you one-up, on top, in a superior place, as the benefactor, the generous one, the giver of freedom and dignity - Don't trust it, don't give it, don't accept it. It's not forgiveness; It's sweet saintly revenge."
Whenever we condemn the sins of others we need to look at ourselves even more thoroughly. We should challenge ourselves with the words: "We either are, or have been, or may be, what he/she is."
In the Lords' Prayer we say, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us..."
The word translated sin or trespasses literally means debt. We all sin and fall short of God's perfect standard for us. This is to love God with our whole being, and to love other people as we love ourselves. This failure is sin. The penalty for sin is death, separation from God.
Jesus has paid that penalty when he was on the cross. That is why he said, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ?' Through this separation he secured forgiveness for the sins of all who trust in him. To truly trust in Jesus is to realise that we are not good enough for God. To realise that Jesus has died for us personally, and the pain and suffering that our sin caused him. To respond in gratitude by putting our life under his control.
This isn't a heavenly contract, "I'll do this if you do that." God's offer of forgiveness is undeserved. We are sinners pardoned by God through the death of his Son. Therefore, we are to forgive other people. Not because it earns us a place in heaven but because it shows that we realise the basis of our own forgiveness. As soon as we condemn someone else, we condemn ourselves.
We are forgiven, so we can be forgiving. If we are unforgiving it calls into question our own forgiveness. The third verse of Make me a channel of your peace illustrates this.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we're born to eternal life.
All this talk of forgiveness, grace - or undeserved favour as I like to call it, is not a licence to behave as we wish. Jesus told the woman to "Go now and leave your life of sin.", verse 11. When we decide to entrust our life into the hands of Jesus we turn from everything we know to be contrary to God's perfect will. This results in us being pardoned for our sins, and being freed from the power of sin. God comes and lives inside us by His Spirit. So we are called to live for God and fellow believers are also called to live for God. If we know of any fellow believer who is sinning and needs to amend their ways we have a responsibility to them to humbly point this out. Aware that we are weak, fallible human beings and can stray from God's path. Paul's letter to the church at Galatia makes this point.
Galatians 6:1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
There are ( at least ) two responses we can make to today's sermon.
If we have been unforgiving to someone we can ask God to forgive us and, perhaps ask the person to forgive us. Perhaps the very act of asking this of someone might be a witness of what Jesus could do for them.
An Evening Prayer By C. Maude Battersby
If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive!
If I have uttered idle words or vain,
If I have turned aside from want or pain,
Lest I myself shall suffer through the strain,
Dear Lord, forgive!
If I have been perverse or hard, or cold,
If I have longed for shelter in Thy fold,
When Thou hast given me some fort to hold,
Dear Lord, forgive!
Forgive the sins I have confessed to Thee;
Forgive the secret sins I do not see;
O guide me, love me and my keeper be,
Dear Lord, Amen.
The second response that some people may want to make is to become a follower of Jesus, or perhaps to recommit their life to him. Aware of our failure to love God with our whole being all of the time and to love other people as yourself you want to ask Jesus for forgiveness and to help you make a new start. This will lead to you having peace in your heart, knowing God as your friend and guide forever, and the power to live for God. All this is available to you through a short prayer. If you would like to pray it now, in the silence of your heart:
I am sorry that I have not lived my life as I should,
Thank you for earning my forgiveness through your death on the cross,
Gratefully I give my life back to you.
I ask you to come into my life as my master and my friend.
Please give me your Holy Spirit to help me live for you into eternity.