March 6, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
The Dangerous Road of Judgment
I am grateful that religious people are always portrayed in such a positive light. Even people who don’t believe in God see religious people as gracious, accepting, and nonjudgmental. They do, don’t they?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were always seen that way? Next to the accusation of being a bunch of hypocrites, religious people most often accused of being highly judgmental of others. It’s actually kind of hard to argue with that point, because it’s true.
But it’s true for everybody, I think. Not that I’m trying to shift blame or responsibility, but it seems to be part of our nature to make judgments about people. In fact, if I mentioned some names you probably have a judgment about them that pops into your mind immediately. Billy Graham. Mother Theresa. Charlie Sheen. I’m tempted to say I’m not putting him in the same group as Billy Graham and Mother Theresa but that would be judgmental, wouldn’t it? It’s hard not to judge though, isn’t it? Let’s keep that in mind as we consider our Scripture passage for this morning.
As we continue our series of messages Now, But Not Yet, this morning we come to the passage in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery. One of the most famous stories in the gospels, it is a stern warning against the dangers of judgment.
The first thing that strikes me about this passage is the person that’s missing. There should have been two people brought before Jesus. John twice makes the rather indelicate point that the woman was caught in the act of adultery. Where is the man?
The men who dragged this woman before Jesus were not a bit concerned about keeping the law or about matters of personal righteousness. If they were, there would have been two people brought before Jesus that day.
No, these men, these teachers of the law and the Pharisees were not a bit interested in righteousness, holiness, or any of the other matters they purported to support. John tells us this was done in order to trap Jesus.
Isn’t it rather pathetic to see this group of men using this woman in an effort to make a point, to use her as a pawn in their plot to discredit Jesus? There are few things as sad as those who are willing to use other people for their own ends, regardless of how much pain they inflict in the process of doing so. And these men were willing to see this woman executed in order to make their point. Adultery was a very serious crime, so serious that the guilty parties could be given the death penalty. How sad.
Adherence to the law is not what is at stake here. As in numerous other places, the religious leaders were out to get Jesus. By bringing to him a case they believed to be absolutely clear-cut in regards to religious law they hoped to put him in a position where they might discredit him.
William Barclay says of these leaders They were not looking on this woman as a person at all; they were looking at her only as a thing, an instrument whereby they could formulate a charge against Jesus. They were using her, as a person might use a tool, for their own purposes. To them she had no name, no personality, no feelings; she was simply a pawn in the game whereby they sought to destroy Jesus (Barclay, John, p. 6).
It’s a sickening scene, isn’t it? It’s the kind of scene that puts a knot in our stomach because it was a game everyone could see for what it truly was – using this woman in order to make a point.
This was a religious gotcha game, and they still go on today. It happens when someone asks you a question, not because they are looking for help finding an answer, but when they are seeing if you will answer correctly. You know those kinds of questions, don’t you? Well, let me ask you this, and it is often asked in front of other people to test you and to put you on the spot. Religious gotcha games happen when we become the judge and the jury, believing we are the ones qualified to make all manner of judgments about others.
God doesn’t see sinners and he doesn’t see nameless people; God sees people. He sees people worthy of his love, worthy of his redemption, people who make mistakes but are still his children and worthy of his love and grace.
Judgmentalism carries with it a moral superiority. It says I am so much better than others that I am in a moral position to make judgments of others. But that’s not true, is it? Not only is it not our job to judge, we have no standing to make judgments of others.
Judgment is also a way of isolating us from our own dark side. Illusionists use redirection in order to create their illusions. They get people to watch one thing so they miss what they are doing to create the illusion. Redirection is the most important tool of a judgmental person, because it turns attention to others so we can hide or own faults and failures. The accusers of this woman saw her as a distraction from their own sins.
Judgmentalism keeps us from being honest with ourselves. The London Times once asked the great theologian G. K. Chesterton what was wrong with the world. His reply was very succinct – Dear Sirs, In response to your question as to what is wrong with this world – I am. Those men confronting Jesus that day would never have been able to see the truth in such a statement.
And then Jesus, John says, bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. What Jesus wrote is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. One of the traditional thoughts is that Jesus wrote some of the sins of the accusers. It’s interesting that John does not use the usual Greek word for writing. John uses a word that means to write down a record against someone, so the view that Jesus was writing out their sins may well be correct.
What I find particularly admirable about the response of Jesus is that he doesn’t react – he responds, and there is a very big difference. How often do we just explode into reactions in tense situations? This was a very tense situation. I’m sure there was a lot of shouting and screaming and people were already picking out their rocks. We can see these men, standing there with rocks in hand, eyes ablaze with self-righteous anger, sentenced passed and punishment ready to be meted out, perversely enjoying their condemnation of this woman and anxiously awaiting the moment to begin casting their stones. How would you like to be in the middle of such a scene and everyone is looking to you? I would fall apart!
But not Jesus. Jesus does not react – he responds. Most every situation becomes infinitely more complicated because of reacting instead of responding. Can you imagine Jesus, in the midst of this chaotic scene, calmly stooping down and writing in the dirt?
But they keep shouting their questions and then Jesus stands up and gives his immortal response – if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. I’ve tried to imagine how Jesus delivered those words. Did he shout them in righteous indignation, or did he speak them softly, letting the power of the words deliver the full impact?
What an impact they had. After stooping back down to begin writing again the crowd left, until only Jesus and the woman were left. And he asks her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? No one, sir she replied. Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin. Wow, what an amazing moment.
But it’s at that point that some people have difficulty, because they fear Jesus lets her off the hook too easily.
I tend to keep a book with me wherever I go. If I have a few minutes, or if I stop to eat lunch, I like having a book along to read. Recently, I was carrying a book titled Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental. I was fascinated by the comments of people who saw the book. One person seemed very offended by the title and began to tell me how we make judgments all the time and how we need to make judgments and there was nothing wrong with doing so. Another raised the question of sin, and if perhaps people were let off too easy these days from their sinful behavior. The real reason, I think, that people want to pronounce their judgment is they are afraid of seeing people get off the hook for what they have done.
That’s were judgmentalism has everything figured out. There is no need to understand the circumstances of another person, because we already know all about them; there is no need to try to understand the circumstances of another person’s life, but every life has a context, and that context is important.
Jesus knew, no doubt, the context of this woman’s life, and he encouraged her to change her life. In the eyes of Jesus she had too much value to continue living in a way that brought hurt to her life.
The religious leaders saw themselves as the judge and jury for every action. Jesus was interested in restoration and new beginnings; the religious leaders were watching for every mistake and then they pounced. The rendered their verdict – which was always judgment – and passed out condemnation and, whenever possible, punishment. They saw themselves as the morals police and were always poised to tear others to pieces.
Jesus ends this encounter by pointing the woman to a better way. He doesn’t wring out a punishment or a lecture, but simply says go now and leave your life of sin. It’s the same message to all of us. Jesus is telling us to aim higher, to rise to the challenge of love, to scale the heights for which we were created, to allow the good to overcome the bad.
God is more interested, I believe, in restoration than condemnation. How else do we explain Biblical characters such as Moses, David, Peter, and Paul? By many standards they would be considered unfit for leadership, and yet God saw fit to use them.
But there is another interesting part of this story, and for that we go back to Jesus writing on the ground. It’s not just the speculation of what Jesus wrote that’s interesting, but the fact that what he wrote would soon disappear. If Jesus did write the sins of the religious leaders, that writing would soon disappear because of the wind, rain, or footprints trampling over the writing. Jesus not only offered grace to the woman, but to the religious leaders who dragged her before Jesus, the very men who would have been happy to stone her to death.
Jesus was about second chances. For that reason, he wasn’t so much interested in what a person was, but what they could be. Oscar Wilde said, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. May grace, then, and not judgment, be the hallmark of our lives.
(Some of the insights into this passage were helped by the books Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental, by Terry D. Cooper and The Gospel of John, by William Barclay)