They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act…” We’ve caught quite a few in the very act lately, haven’t we? It’s hard to pick up the paper without reading of some public figure caught in the act…mis-conduct of one kind or another, unfaithfulness, fraud, dishonesty, embezzlement, betrayal, incompetence. And, of course, if the accusations are true, they’ve got it coming to them, whatever the consequences turn out to be.
But we’re not concerned with them this morning, even as the Teacher was not concerned about this woman, at least not first off. To be sure, she had been caught in an act that called for the death penalty. It’s right there in his Bible and theirs and ours, Leviticus 20: 10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” In Israel that meant stoning to death. The community would gather and pummel with rocks, of which there are plenty in that land, until they literally batter the guilty one dead. Interestingly, a verse immediately before this one tells us that anyone who reviles his mother or father, must also be stoned to death. How’s that for tough love?
But the Teacher knows their real intention. They’re out to put him in an impossible position. Rome has reserved capital punishment for itself. So what shall he say? “Stone her and violate the laws of Rome…don’t stone her and violate the laws of God.” It’s a trap. And, by the way, where is the man? She was caught in the act, they say, so they obviously know who the guy is. And the old text says both man and woman must be put to death. Why just this poor unfortunate woman?
So he moves the challenge in another direction. He bends over and writes something in the sand. The only time Jesus ever wrote, according to the record. But what did he write? We can only guess. Greed, lust for power, indifference, self-righteousness, hardness of heart, arrogance, hypocrisy, prejudice, vengeance, complacency, blindness, joylessness. In any event, he looks at them and says, “all right, let’s get the show on the road. Those of you without sin cast the first stones.”
Again he bends and waits and writes, until he hears the sound of sandals shuffling off into the distance. When he looks up, there is just the woman, standing alone, shaken, staring…at him.
So his first word to the good, upper-class, influential , straight-living religious people of his day is this. Face your own failings. “Whoever of you is without sin, cast the first stone.” Even people who do not know the Bible, know that phrase. Because we have a problem when we catch someone in the act, when we look out there, when we read the paper and watch CNN, and see human failure, often cruel, evil, deliberate failure. They have broken the law, gotten caught, and must bear the appropriate punishment. That’s the way it should be. That’s their problem.
So what is ours? We all suffer from a terribly human and understandable tendency. We are inclined to avoid the thought of our own human failings, mistakes, weaknesses, sometimes even quite harsh actions, or to put it Biblically, our sins.
We don’t want to hear sin talked about, at least not our own. It raises all kinds of childhood guilt hangovers. It heightens our sense of self-doubt and vulnerability.
So in fact, the word has rather disappeared from our vocabulary . Now I have no desire to intensify the emotions of those of you who are all too ready to feel guilty at the drop of a commandment. Garrison Keillor insists that guilt is important. He says, “Sinners are the ones who get the work done. A strong sense of personal guilt is what makes people willing to serve on committees.” But guilt that hangs on within is, for the most part, a totally unproductive emotion, especially because most of us feel guilty about the wrong things anyway. Tell me, when was the last time you felt guilty about not singing? And yet the Bible is full of commandments to sing and rejoice. Some of you standing mute out there during our hymns. Ever think that you are sinning big time?
So, frankly, I do avoid using the word “sin” myself, not because I don’t think there is such a thing, but because I think the word is badly misunderstood and there are other ways of talking about it. The word “sin” in the Biblical text comes from, of all things, archery, shooting an arrow with a bow, and it means missing the target . The word can mean intentional destructive evil. But more often it refers to an underlying human condition which we all share, apparent in the tension between the way I am and the way I know I ought to be. The fact is that I clearly and often miss the mark.
So sin is a far broader and deeper issue than bank robbery and drive by shootings, drug dealing and brutal murder, as ugly as these are. It is the universal human experience that we have not yet pulled it off, have not yet arrived, not one of us. But we are uncomfortable with that reality and will do almost anything to avoid it, to sustain an image of competency if not perfection.
Alice was to bake a cake for the church bake sale. But she forgot until the very last minute. So she baked an angel food cake, but when she took it from the oven the center collapsed. “Oh, dear,” she thought, “No time to bake another cake.” So she looked around the house to find something to build up the center of the cake. All she could come up with was a half used roll of toilet tissue. So she stuffed the roll of paper into the sunken center and then covered it all with icing. The finished product looked beautiful, so she set out to rush it to the church. But before she left the house, Alice gave her daughter some money and instructions to be at the bake sale the minute it opened, to buy the cake and bring it home. But when the daughter arrived at the sale, the cake had already been sold. Alice was beside herself. Nothing she could do about it. But at least her name was not on it.
The next day, Alice joined two tables of bridge at a friend’s home. After the game the hostess served a quite elegant lunch, topped off by the cake in question for dessert. When Alice saw the cake, panic set in. She was about to rush into the kitchen to tell her hostess all about it, but before she could get to her feet, one of the other women said, “What a beautiful cake.” Alice sat helpless as the hostess, a prominent member of the church, said, “Thank you. I baked it myself.”
It is no wonder that we often deal with our flaws and failures by retreating into a position of superiority. We manage to stuff them into some back closet of the mind where they no longer bother us. Whenever you meet someone, even if in the mirror in the morning, who can’t handle being wrong, who bridles at the least suggestion that there may be a flaw here and there, who can’t tolerate correction or contradiction, you can pretty well bet that he has not faced up to his unfinished side, that he is one of those about whom Jesus wrote in the sand.
And it is so sad, because it can mean the breakdown of relationship. The leaders standing before Jesus are blind to the reality that this woman is also one of God’s people. And it is sad, because it can mean the end of life and growth. Salvation, which means becoming all that God with his love liberates me to be and so giving all that I can give in life, Salvation begins with an awareness of where I am and where I’ve got to go. The problem with thinking you have arrived, that you are “OK,” is that you no longer have any challenge and goal, no longer any reason to struggle in life.
So the first words of real life are the words, “Face Your Failings.” Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus down at Loyola University has written wise words. “The first principle of being human toward ourselves is based on the universal and exceptionless truth that nobody has it all together. It only looks that way. And it only looks that way to us because we are glancing at other people from our own angle. We see them from the outside and compare them to ourselves and judge that they have outwitted life, found the secret of youth, or lead totally untroubled lives. We tend to judge ourselves more harshly, give ourselves fewer breaks, and generally less credit. We cannot see the inner world of struggle that besets persons who seem so poised and confident to us. They are almost maddenly at peace with the world as far as we can see. We are intimidated by what appears to be, not only their success, but the fact that they seem to be enjoying it so much.
The truth is, of course, that nobody does have it all together and most people don’t feel that they do, although they think everybody else does. But there is a steady tension involved in purposeful living. Nobody ever beats life completely or arrives at a point where they have nothing to worry about and nothing to strive for. Should a person get into that situation the only thing left remaining on the agenda might be to die. That is probably exactly what some individuals do when they run out of goals. There is a dynamic involved in real life, however, that means it is essentially impossible ever to get it all together. So we keep at it and when we do this with purpose and a fairly well-developed sense of ourselves, we are at peace and we are happy.”
Ah, but that’s the joker in the pack, isn’t it? As long as we have a fairly well-developed sense of ourselves. Face our failures. But we can do that only as we feel ourselves to be more than our failures. And that’s the word the woman now hears…and the word those defensive religious folk miss as they run from his indictment. “Neither do I condemn you. Your sins are forgiven.” Embrace yourself as more than your failures.
Not very therapeutic on the face of it, is it? A more modern, clinically trained Jesus would raise the question as to whether what she had done was really so wrong. Moral judgments are after all culturally conditioned, and society is clearly not so rigid about such matters today, thank goodness. And undoubtedly you suffer from lack of paternal love in your teen-age years which may have driven you to seek love in this somewhat mistaken way.
But that is not what he says. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the power of the words rests in her realization that, though she has failed, humanly perhaps destructively failed, she is more than her failure. The forgiveness of God means that, though I have stumbled, fallen, come short of His will for me, I am still more than this stumble and that fall; I am still a creature and child of God. And life is not over yet. A fairly well-developed sense of ourselves? It comes as hearing a word of forgiveness from beyond us, and we are able to face our failures, because we can embrace ourselves as God does, as far more than our failures.
Face our failures. Embrace ourselves as more than our failures. Those who know themselves as more than their inadequacies and failures who are able to live with the thought that they have failed and will fail. It is because their identity and worth and future rest elsewhere, in the love of God.
One man tells how it happened to him. “ For nearly twenty years I made a fool of myself trying to prove myself to other people. So I became a Christian, and I began going to Church every Sunday in order to prove to others what a good guy I was. Strangely, I was no longer human. I was a proud dispenser of the truth. Needless to say I was so Godly I was pathetic. My friends all assumed I was so close to God that I didn’t need anything from them.
“Seven years later, brain cancer took my mother’s life. I just stood by her shriveled body in disbelief. For the first time in my life I didn’t have an answer for the occasion. God taught me how to cry the day after my mother died, the day that I put my arms around my father and told him that I loved him. I think I caught a glimpse of how God sees my Dad,
and maybe a lot of other struggling people—maybe even me. And from then on I was vulnerable. I had abandoned my island of perfection to become a human being who could and did make mistakes. Other people could have laughed at me or rejected me because of the way I had acted, but they didn’t. Instead they came and put their arms around me and I learned from friends what the love of God is all about. I don’t pretend to have all the answers for life’s problems anymore, but it’s OK. I am loved. And I go on trying.”
“Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus does not dismiss what she has done, but he embraces her as more than her failure, and so sets her free from the past to start over again. “Go your way…and sin no more.”
What on earth does Jesus mean here? We recite this at 8 o’clock communion and I often wonder what the participants think of that outrageous request. “OK, you are forgiven. Now, never make another mistake ‘til the day you die?” Sounds like it, doesn’t it? Can he really be that unrealistic? Or could he means something like this: Get up and run the race. Each morning as you rise from your bed and set out on your way into life again, you are not to say, “Well, I wonder where I will mess up today, nor are you to lapse into complacency, content that God will go easy on you whether you try or not.” You are to set out each new day to try and get it right, determined to be the very best you can be. We do not set out half-heartedly to do the will of God, to live the life of integrity and excellence, or creativity and caring. We set out with each new day to give our all, knowing that at day’s end, however it may have gone, there is rest in God.
Sir William Osler, in many ways the founder of modern medical practice, once wrote, “At night, as I lay aside my clothes, I undress my soul too, and lay aside my mistakes and failures. In the presence of God, I lie down to rest and to awaken a free man with a new life.”
So the final and real question this old story plants in front of us is not a question about perfection, but about direction and intention. Where are we headed as a human being? Anywhere? Mucking around or growing and stretching, running the race that is set before us until our day is done.
Go your way…in peace. .