What Jesus Does With Stones
A few conversations based on yesterday’s post have me thinking (again) about sin and struggle and our often frantic scrambling to claim the moral high ground in our discourse. And, like water running down well-worn grooves, my thoughts seem always to drift inevitably to familiar stories of Jesus. Stories that I talk and write about frequently. Stories that my kids probably get sick of me bringing up. Stories that saturate ten years worth of blog archives (here, here, here… on and on it goes). Sometimes I feel mildly embarrassed about defaulting to the same handful of stories over and over and over again. But the embarrassment doesn’t usually last long. These stories tell us the truth about who God is and about who we are. These are the kinds of stories that can save us.
Stories like the one told in John 8:1-11. We have a bunch of righteous religious folks with stones in hand who drag a “sinful” adulterous woman before Jesus. They armed with the law of Moses in one hand and a generous dose of self-righteousness in the other.
Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses commanded us to stone such women…
Now. What do you say?
The Pharisees are hungry for judgment, whether it turns out to be of Jesus or the woman. Either way, it seems that their hunger will be sated. Either Jesus will have to agree with their assessment of the Law, and the woman will be put to death, or, Jesus will, as they suspect, side with the woman and with mercy thereby demonstrating by his callous disregard for the Law of Moses that all of his claims to be Israel’s Messiah are false.
The Pharisees know what Jesus is like. But what will he do when he is faced with a choice like this? What will he do when the Law very clearly states…. ? Well, we know what Jesus does. He changes the game.
Throw your stones, Jesus says. Only before you do, be sure that you are without sin. And slowly they take their leave of this Jesus—bitterly, I imagine—deprived of the vindication they so longed for.
And then we have this well known beautiful moment between Jesus and a woman who could only have assumed that this was to be her last day on earth. Has no one condemned you? he asks. Then neither do I. Go and leave your sin, live the life you were created for.
I love Jesus for his response here—not only for what he says but for what he does. For starters, it says the Pharisees made the woman stand. We can imagine the woman was ashamed, that she wanted to hide, that she wanted to be invisible. But they made her stand before the group.
And what does Jesus do? He bends down low. It’s a symbolically powerful moment. Jesus, the one in whom God bends down to his people, the one in whom God empties himself, becoming nothing… He bends down.
We don’t know precisely why Jesus bent down, but we do know that rather than picking up stones, he begins to write something in the dust. But what? People have endlessly wondered about this. Was it examples of the Pharisees’ sins? Was it the Ten Commandments? Was he just doodling?
Or, perhaps it wasn’t what he was writing, but that he was writing. I think the most compelling explanation of what Jesus might have been up to with his mysterious actions here comes out of Jeremiah 17.
The context is a prophetic judgment against the people of Israel for their idolatry, for their gaining of wealth by unjust means, for trusting in the ways of men rather than the ways of God, and in general for having hearts turned away from the Lord.
After a long section recounting these sins, Jeremiah says these words:
O LORD, the hope of Israel!
All who forsake you shall be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you
shall be written in the dust,
for they have forsaken the LORD,
the fountain of living water. –Jeremiah 17:13
Those who turn away from you shall be written in the dust.
The Pharisees would have known Jeremiah 17 very well. And Jesus would have known that the Pharisees knew this very well. Is it possible that in bending over and writing in the ground in response to the Pharisees eager desire for the letter of the Law rather than mercy, that Jesus was saying, “This is you! You have forsaken the fountain of living water. You have turned away from the Lord. You are eager to render judgment and slow to follow the Lord who is described in the same Law you are so eager to use as a weapon, as ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).'”
Is it possible that in writing on the ground, Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, “If you persist in these ways, you will be written in the dust?” We don’t know. But we do know that whatever Jesus was doing, instead of bending over to pick up stones, Jesus bends over to rebuke them for their eagerness to sacrifice this woman on the altar of their piety, and to point the woman’s accusers to a deep truth about God.
And what is this deep truth about God? Jesus summarizes it quite well in another encounter with Pharisees in Matthew 9. Again, they are complaining, this time about the sorts of people that Jesus is eating with the wrong sorts of people. Sinners and tax collectors. Jesus, quoting the prophet Hosea says to them, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13).
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
This story does not mean, as so many are pleased to think, that Jesus is tolerant. This is a word unworthy of Jesus. This story is not saying that we must never talk about sin or call people to holiness. One of the most incredible things about Jesus’ last words to the woman is how they preserve both mercy and deep convictions about holiness.
Jesus doesn’t say to the woman, “Go now and be true to yourself.” He doesn’t say, “Go now and be a heroic individual.” He doesn’t say, “Go now, as you were, and know that God will never judge you.” He doesn’t say any of those things. Instead, he says, “Go, leave your life of sin.” He honours the woman by showing her that she is a moral being capable of making better choices. And that the choices she makes matter. He does the same for each of us.
But… There is one obvious yet crucial thing that we must never forget.
We are not Jesus.
Our judgments inevitably veer away from mercy and toward sacrifice. We sacrifice others on the altars of our need to be vindicated, to be proved right, to be thought superior, to have our theological categories preserved, to be praised by the right people in the right ways. The list goes on an on.
Church history is, regrettably, filled with examples of people who have desired sacrifice and not mercy. Far too many people have only heard from the church, “Go leave your life of sin,” but never “I do not condemn you.”
We are not Jesus.
Jesus is the one human being who could have said, in response to the challenge he gave to the Pharisees—Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her—”Well, I am without sin. I do have the right to condemn you.” In keeping with the Law, Jesus could have bent over to pick up a stone.
But he didn’t.
And if Jesus, the only one who could legitimately throw stones of condemnation refuses to do so, how much more should we, who are not Jesus, always err on the side of mercy?
The preceding is excerpted from a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, August 23, 2015.