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March 1, 2017:  What Do You Hold in Your Hand?

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Have you ever thought that you had messed up so badly that your life, as you know it, was over? Maybe it was something you said or something you did that was so stupid, so shameful that you were certain that you had irreparably burned all your bridges? Have you ever thought “If anyone ever found out what I have done, my life would be over!”?

The account of the young woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8: 1-11) raises all of these questions and anxiety. Early in the morning, Jesus had gone to the Temple. The crowds had gathered around Him and so He sat down to teach them. The scene is interrupted when the scribes and the Pharisees push a woman before Jesus with the accusation that she had been caught in the act of adultery. In cases of proven adultery, Deuteronomy 22:22 clearly called for a mandatory death penalty. To the religious authorities, this is an open and shut case. This woman has burned all her bridges. The evidence of her wrongdoing is conclusive, they say. So, what are you going to do about it, Jesus? How Jesus responds to this young woman is an extraordinary template of how God responds to each of us when all of the evidence would suggest that we have burned all our bridges and our actions have conclusively condemned us.  

To begin with, Jesus does not address the accused but starts with the crowd. Immediately He silences her accusers. Then we are told that Jesus bends down and starts to write on the ground with His finger. There are various theories as to why He might have done this. Perhaps Jesus is playing for time; maybe He is deep in thought or prayer. I believe Jesus was being much more deliberate. Arguably, what we have here is a parabolic action that immediately turned the Pharisees’ finely-educated minds to just one Scripture: “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13). Jesus is communicating to her accusers: “You are those of whom this Scripture speaks.” He need not have written the Scripture in the sand—the gesture was more than enough. What we see here is Jesus meeting her accusers’ judgment with judgment.

Jesus is not saying we can’t pass a judgment or have a strong opinion on a moral issue unless we are untainted by any history of wrongdoing or wrong desires. We can hold an opinion—we can have a view—but the real question is how we are “holding” that opinion. What is in our hand when we form our opinion? Is it mercy or is it a rock?

How would I know what I was holding? C.S Lewis would have us discover this with the aid of an interesting test in three parts. First, Lewis begins by asking us to call to mind someone who has wounded us. Having done this, he then invites us to imagine that this person is now publicly exposed in some kind of scandal. We must then use our imagination a third time to envisage a scenario in which something else is printed that reveals that the first salacious story is not true, or at least not quite as bad as was made out. How do we respond to this new information? Is our first feeling, “Thank God!” or is it, as Lewis puts it, “…a feeling of disappointment and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemy as bad as possible?” That, says Lewis, would be evidence of a rock in the palm of our hand.

John’s accounts continues: “… [Jesus] straightened up and said to [the crowd] ,’Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until it was only Jesus left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,” she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8: 7b-12).

Now I imagine that this story might be familiar to us. We knew this ending was coming! But let’s not lose sight of just how radical this encounter is. This is God incarnate, the embodiment of all that is holy, the same “I am” who met Moses at Mount Sinai in glory, who now stands before a proven adulterer and says, “I do not condemn you.” This is the radical mercy of God. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” (John 3:17) We discover that at the very heart of God is mercy. Do you think it is possible that if Jesus could forgive this woman then He could forgive you too?

How does Jesus deal with us when we fear that all our bridges are burned? He silences our accusers and speaks His word of forgiveness to us. But then He does something else: He brings release. The grace of forgiveness is immediately followed by the grace of a new life, a fresh start, a new beginning, another “second chance”—with a charge to sin no more.

How do you think the woman did? Did she keep out of trouble? We can’t be sure, but Jesus does give us this insight. Speaking to a Pharisee named Simon one day, He told the following story: “’Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said…” (Luke 7: 41-43). It is the Spirit of God who transforms us from the inside out. It is the Spirit of God who keeps us from temptation that is too strong for us.

It is a heart that acknowledges our own desperate iniquity and the radical nature of God’s love and mercy that allows the Holy Spirit the greatest access to our lives. And this is the new life that Jesus invites the woman accused of adultery into.

So how do we apply this account to our own lives? Well, it depends if you see yourself as either the woman or the crowd. Actually, I recognize that I can be both. To the woman, Jesus says: You are forgiven—walk in the freedom of a new life. To the crowd, Jesus says: You are forgiven—walk in the freedom of a new life… unless you think you are without sin, in which case, go ahead and throw your stone.