Scriptures: John 8:1-11
Sticks and Stones
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
We are continuing, in this third week of Lent, with the sermon series Journey of Stones, and today we look at a Scripture that is unique to John, both in terms of its content and its placement, as we once again see how we sometimes interact and are more like the Pharisees than we would like to admit.
When you were growing up, I'm sure that there were a lot of phrases or chants that were frequently used about other people. Such as “liar, liar, pants on fire, nose as long as a telephone wire.” Or how about this one, if you had an older brother or a sister, and you saw them with their significant other? “John and Linda, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Linda with a baby carriage.” Or maybe you pull a prank on somebody – guys in particular like to do this, with the fly. You point like this, they can't resist it and they have to look down and you say, “Made you look!”
Or Little League baseball. I participated in Little League baseball for one year, then my dad pulled us out because he thought the parents were too dangerous. I don't remember how many years our son Zach was in Little League, I think a couple years. But one of the things that kids would often call was “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher.” And of course, ubiquitous among all children's experience is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Most of those playground phrases may have a ring of truth, 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 dearly. Yet we tell our children otherwise, whenever the other kids are being cruel. “Just ignore them,” we say, “don't pay attention to what the others say. Remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” But we know it's not true.
Last week when we talked about rejection, and the stones of rejection, I mentioned some of the nicknames I had growing up. And even those that were intended to be positive, in a way, like the Tank of the Deceiver, had an element in them that acknowledged the rejection that had occurred. Someone once wrote a more accurate version of that little saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can stink like anything.” And you know it's true.
Again, when you were growing up – and particularly this is common with the girls, though I will tell you that I had a similar experience as a guy because of my general shape – you saw a scene like this. A teenage girl walks by a group of middle school boys, and one of them whispers, in an voice that can be heard, “Hey, Lisa's getting a little chunky, don't you think?” 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. When I was in my teenage years, I was diagnosed with a form of bulimia, and it was due to similar things.
Or maybe a father carelessly calls his college-aged son “lazy” or “stupid” or “clumsy” or “irresponsible.” The boy seems to not 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 stink like anything.” And we do it all the time. And sometimes, we even do it on purpose.
The last 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 always been that way. In the epistle of James, the thing that he declares to be the most dangerous thing is the tongue, because it can set off wildfires, and it is so difficult to rein in.
Now looking at the context of our Bible story today, it's dawn, in the temple courts. Jesus had gone off by himself to pray and to recharge, before then. He'd had a tense time with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, and he had spoken of the fact that “anyone who comes to me will have living water springing up” in them.
There were those that said he was a prophet and those that wondered how that could possibly be. The Pharisees and others were really looking for a way to get rid of him. It's that way in all the Gospels but particularly in John. The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders is incredible.
So it's dawn, in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around Jesus and he sat down to teach them. The temple courts is an open area of the temple. Women could be there. Men could be there. Gentiles could be there. It's the same area where, around the edges, they had all the stands for money-changing, selling the animals that were sacrificed – all the things that Jesus overturned when he drove people out of the temple when he was cleansing it.
A lot of dirt and dust got dragged in, I'm sure, from people walking. It's not like they had a mat for you to wipe your feet on, on your way in. And remember, Israel is a semi-arid area, where it's dry and dusty. And as my wife shared with me during the week about this, she had lived in Spain for a while, and the area she lived in was also dry and dusty. She said you'd go out and then come home, and your clothing would be just full of fine dirt, even though you never got down in it. It was just everywhere.
The reason I mention that is because we will see, soon, that Jesus was writing in the dirt, and one of the first questions I had was, if this was Herod's temple which was made of stone, then how could Jesus be writing in the dirt? That's a pretty significant explanation.
So it's dawn, and 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 question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
As I read this part of the passage, there are a couple of things that came to my mind. Again, this is at dawn in the temple courts. This is where they worshiped. So the first thing that came to my mind was, what had the Pharisees and the teachers of the law been doing that night, that they had caught a woman in adultery and brought her at dawn in front of a crowd?
This is not to excuse or condone her apparent sin. But it's obvious that this was a set-up, as they – just as they would do with Jesus – disobeyed all of the legal procedures that they were supposed to follow, particularly in capital cases, which this was, since they wanted to stone her to death.
The whole Sanhedrin had to meet. They had to give twenty-four hours to think about it. It couldn't be done at night, it had to be done during the day. They had to have at least three witnesses. And if you have three witnesses to adultery, there's a problem somewhere. None of this was right. So what were they doing?
The second thing is the woman herself. Chances are, if they dragged her straight from where she was doing the act of adultery, she was, in the words of my southern friends in Tennessee, naked as a jaybird. And in the Jewish culture, while it was shameful to be naked like that, it was more shameful for those that saw somebody naked and then didn't do something about it.
Thirdly, again, this was the temple courts, not the Sanhedrin's court, the court of elders. What are they doing, bring a naked woman into a house of worship? Can you imagine something like that today, how well that would go over?
So they said, “The law of Moses commands us to stone such a woman. Now, what do you say?” Imagine, right in the middle of conducting worship, or at least teaching, and they drag this woman right into the sanctuary and say these things to trap him.
They say, “A woman such as this should be stoned.” A woman such as this. The label must have stung as it landed on her ears, but just in case she missed the charge, you can bet the onlookers probably piled on the evidence. “She's nothing but a slut! She's a whore! She's trash! We say stone her to death.”
We know what crowds can do. The crowd that loved Jesus that loved Jesus on Palm Sunday, a week later had been turned into a crowd that said, “Crucify him” by some leading questions and statements. And anybody who doesn't understand mob mentality has obviously not been to a college football game.
And they were doing this in front of the congregation. She was already dying a slow and painful death … there in the church … 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.
And lest we feel separated from this story and these people, take a look at what's going on around today. In the news, there is story after story – because the news media loves to tell it – of church leaders, and even congregation members who have positions of importance or leadership or celebrity elsewhere, who have failed morally in some way. The media bring it up and they gleefully shout about it and point out, “Hypocrite! Hypocrite!”
And what do we as a church do? Do we not say, “They should be condemned”? I don't often read the comments below these articles, but sometimes I do, and without fail, I'm going to say – even though I'm just pulling this out of the air – 95% of the comments are along the lines of “That person should be gotten rid of.” “He should never enter ministry again.” “She should be so ashamed of herself.” “How could they do that to us?”
We are more than happy to pile on in condemning them. Never mind the fact that they may have shown open repentance. Never mind the fact that many of them have even taken steps toward remedial discipline such as going into rehab, or stepping down from their position.
And we never let go. Sandi Patty, whom I love as a singer, had an affair and a divorce, and she went from being at the top of the Christian charts to crashing down to nothing. Even though she had repented, even though her pastor said, “We have worked through this with all parties and there has been forgiveness” (though the divorce was still final and she ended up sinning more, according to some people, by marrying somebody else), I've never seen any of her songs top the charts again.
We point, and we condemn. And that's what these people did. Hundreds of eyes, gawking at a woman “such as this.” Hundreds of hands picking up stones of judgment. These were not real stones, mostly likely.
After all, this was inside the temple, and the way that they stoned people was they either threw them off a cliff onto the rocks and then pushed boulders on top of them, or they buried the person up to their shoulders in the sand and then threw about softball-sized rocks at their head until they died. I'm sorry if that graphic image disturbs some of you, but it's a reality.
Even if the stones they had were not physical stones, they picked up stones – of words, of attitudes, of judgment, of humiliation. But one pair of eyes didn't do that. Jesus looked down at the ground and began writing in the dirt. He refused to add to the woman's humiliation, and refused to condemn her, though he was the only one gathered who was qualified to do so.
A lot of people speculate on what Jesus was writing in the dirt. Some people say it was the Pharisees' names and their sins. Some people say it was the sins of all the crowd of onlookers. Some people say it was the law being written out.
It was a tradition – and this is another way the Pharisees and the scribes broke the rules – that when someone was accused of something and condemned, their crime was to be written out or declared in some way in front of them. Often, it was written in the dirt, if the execution was by stoning or hanging.
We know on the cross, Jesus supposed crimes were put on a placard that was posted above his head, so everyone could read it. That was following the law. People had to know why this person was being condemned to death. The Pharisees hadn't done that.
Jesus is writing, though. They kept questioning him. I want you to think about that in your head and imagine. He is busy writing. He seems to have ignored them, and they say, “Well? Well? What are you going to say? What does the law say? What do you think the law says?” Can you hear the crowd murmuring, getting impatient, ready to take action, as emotions rise?
Jesus finally stands up, and says to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then, again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. My personal opinion is that he was probably writing people's names and sins – especially after he declared that.
If you're perfect, he says, let 'em fly! If your life is without sin, you can start the stoning. It's no accident that it says the older Pharisees where the first to leave. As we age, it seems that we become more aware of our shortcomings, and more honest about our own failures. I like to say it's because as we get older, it's harder for us to run away, to move on. Instead, we learn that we just have to face it, with fortitude, and work through it.
But 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 man's rigid 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.”
I would note, Jesus does not condone her sin, whatever it might be, adultery or anything else. The one who was perfect, the one who could have cast the first stone, says, “I don't condemn you.” But “go and sin no more.”
We're supposedly called to be like that. But if this story were to be told today, as I mentioned earlier, I fear that we would be the Pharisees. We, who insulate ourselves from the real sinners of this world, by our pious speech and self-righteous attitudes; it is our hands that would be filled with stones. And we would aim them at anyone who did not think, or did not act, or did not speak, or did not believe the way we do.
Again, you can see that today. I can't tell you how many times – I don't hardly ever even go on Facebook anymore, even though I used to use it to keep track of some people, because so many times I see someone who says something like “I can't believe that this person is a Christian and could follow that person.” “I can't believe this person could possibly be a Christian and support that particular cause.” “I can't believe that this person could be a Christian and believe like that.” Us and them.
Literally, the word Pharisee means “people who have separated themselves.” Don't we do 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 can't make marriage work, or those whose children are ne'er-do-well. C'mon, admit it: we're better than them, right? We don't do the things that people such as these do, so we have earned the right to cast stones at them. You see it every day.
That's what the Pharisees thought … and Jesus said they were wrong. Again, he didn't say that the sinner was innocent. But he did imply that she deserved the compassion – not the wrath – of those who wanted to stone her.
Two thousand years after the fact, we readily admit that Jesus was right, that the woman deserved a second chance. And yet, we are so harshly 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 do not forgive an adulterous president (a number of them, really). We resent the actions of the Pharisees in Jesus' day, but we have 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 are proud to cast the first stone. In short, we have 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.
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 is compassion. That is tenderness. And that is the gospel. The stones you picked up today – both real and imagined – have perhaps already been target for someone. Those who have never sinned may take them with you, when you leave this place. The rest of us are invited to lay them at the foot of the cross and be given a second chance. Thanks be to God. Amen.