Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
Today’s dramatic Gospel is a natural choice for movies about Jesus. As the Master serenely teaches attentive listeners, a crowd of men armed with stones drag in a woman, beautiful and disheveled, and demand their harsh justice. Jesus ignores them, bends down to write or draw in the sand with his finger until they insist on an answer. Without glancing up, he responds and, one by one, they drop their stones and, shame-faced, walk away.
It’s a fabulous scenario: literally fabulous because, in fact, there were no stones. Reread the Gospel and the only stones you’ll find are verbal, first mentioned by the Scribes and Pharisees and, later, by Jesus. At the time of Jesus, no Jew in living memory had been stoned for adultery. Do you know and Bible-thumpers who, no matter how much they quote the Book of Deuteronomy to straighten out other people’s lives, would suggest stoning adulterers? Just as they would not hesitate to to eat pork sausage for breakfast or oyster stew on Christmas Eve, just as believing men do not hesitate to shave–all also prescribed by the holiness code of the Book of Deuteronomy–no one would suggest stoning adulterers. Usually we say that the law of love of the New Testament overrides all that. From before the birth of Jesus, Jews already knew better; they recognized that such a prescription was inhuman and inconsistent with the God who creates and loves these creatures. The “stoning” meant eliminating the social sin itself.
The Word of God is communicated to us through human writers who, as limited human beings, are incapable of containing the depth and breadth of the divine Word. Despite ourselves, we distort God’s Word by our human limitations. My preaching is incapable of conveying to you this Divine Word in its divinity. The most I can do is to attempt to break open my own prejudices and pose a few questions and trust the Holy spirit to work in our hearts, our understanding and our wills.
Today the Scribes and Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. Were he to say, “Stone her according to God’s Word and bring the man here too, because Moses said both the man and the woman are to be stoned,” they’d accuse him of inhumanity. This Galilean bumpkin’s interpretation of the Word of God would be unworthy of the faith of their fathers. If, however, he said, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore!” he’d lose credibility as someone who reverenced the Word of God. He’d be as bad as one of the occupying Romans who mocked Jews for their superstitions.
So what might Jesus be saying here? Has he allowed this ugly confrontation not to be reduced to a simplistic exercise of assigning blame and persecuting the scapegoat? Was he challenging those who reduced the Word of God to the narrow categories their minds could handle? Is he challenging us through all ages to question our limited point of view, our stingy sense of justice? Has he uncovered the human insecurity and fear that distorts God’s directives for our good into hateful vengeance? Has he discovered that the real eradication of sin lies only in God’s mercy and forgiveness? Is he daring us to become channels of God’s mercy and forgiveness?