Summary: A look at how Jesus dealt with sinners.
In July of 2007 President George W. Bush granted a pardon to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sparing him from a 2 ½ year prison term in a CIA leak case. Libby was the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. He was convicted in March of lying to authorities and obstructing the investigation into the identity leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame. And while the president left the $250,000 fine in place, it was still very controversial. U.S. presidents receive upwards of 600 petitions for forgiveness a year, and because of the political fallout they usually wait until the last moments of their office to grant the pardons. Pardons and forgiveness are not always popular. Handing out justice seems much more to people’s liking.
The story we have read in the Scripture today is another controversial pardon. The setting is the temple courts in Jerusalem. Jesus has just sat down and begun to teach the people who have come to worship in the temple. All of a sudden there is a commotion with shouting, pushing and shoving. A woman with disheveled clothing is thrown in front of Jesus. She stumbles and struggles to remain on her feet. John writes, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group” (John 8:3). There is a tone of shame in the words of John. They made her stand in front of the group as they announced her sin publicly: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). Caught? I wonder about that. I wonder if they had been stalking her. It could have been that they set her up and had someone seduce her. It could even have been that someone forced himself on her, and then blamed her. They said to Jesus: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:5). Stoning women for adultery, and much less, still goes on in the world today. There have been any number of stories in the news about people in the Middle-Eastern culture who still go by these kinds of values. Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan women were regularly stoned to death for adultery, or merely the accusation of it by a jealous or vindictive husband. One story that made the news recently was of a young woman who had the audacity to want to marry a young man from another family group. Her brothers and family gruesomely stoned her to death. So this is very much alive today. And even though we in the United States do not literally stone people, Christians often practice the same kind of rejection that the woman in our story experienced — at the hands of religious folk.
In effect, what the religious leaders are doing is trying to trap Jesus. “Hey Jesus,” they say, “Don’t you believe in the Scriptures? The Scriptures say to stone adulterers. Here is an adulterer. Now what do you say to do? Do you follow the Scriptures or not?” The dilemma they placed him in was that if Jesus had said not to stone her, he would have been breaking Jewish law, but if he had said to stone her, he would be breaking Roman law. They were trying to put him in a lose-lose situation. But what is surprising, as a part of the backdrop of the story, is that Roman law is actually kinder than Jewish religious law — as it was interpreted by the Pharisees. It was actually more fair and gave room for grace. It took people’s humanity into account. First, Roman law said that you could not condemn anyone without two or three witnesses. Secondly, the death penalty could not happen without going through a trial in the Roman court system where people had a chance to defend themselves. Jewish religious law could be harsh, as Jesus experienced. It is interesting that in the trial of Jesus, it is Pilate who comes to Jesus’ defense and tried several times to release him. He said to the Pharisees: “I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him” (Luke 23:14). It is a thief on a cross who says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:4). It was a Roman soldier who said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47). But all the religious leaders could do was to shout, “He deserves to die. Crucify him.”
How is it that supposedly good, religious people can be meaner than those who do not know God? How is it that the Roman government could be fairer and kinder to people who had done wrong than those who were supposed to be the people of God? But this same kind of judgmental, graceless religion can still be found in the church today. Perhaps we need to learn the truth of the saying, “The one who casts stones should be aware that he may be losing ground.”