Casting the first stone

Ash Wednesday

John 8:1-11

It may seem a bizarre choice, but this is one of my favourite gospel stories.

One of the things that strikes me when I read the gospels - and tonight’s reading is a brilliant example - is the way that people are confronted with themselves when they meet Jesus. Who they really are, or the part of them that characterises and shapes their whole life, is what we see when we see them with Jesus. Now of course, the accounts in the gospels are written to focus up something, but only because that is what was seen, what was remembered about what it was like to meet Jesus. It’s as if Jesus is himself so freely human, so unencumbered by the usual run of neuroses and paranoia and "what will they think" and "will I be good enough", that he does not need to force himself on people - or hold back and protect himself. He just is himself - fully human, fully there, giving space for others to be themselves. Not just space in a "take it or leave it" kind of way, but a way of being present that means that people are themselves with him. All through the gospels there are people blurting out their life stories to Jesus, putting their finger on the one thing that holds them back, giving us a glimpse of where their true energy lies - because to be with Jesus makes them sad, or afraid, or immensely and wonderfully sure and hopeful. And Jesus sees and hears like they’ve never been seen or heard before; he restores, he challenges, he reassures, he provokes.

And, suddenly, in the temple courts where people are already flocking around him, the religious leaders drag in this woman who has been caught in adultery, and they announce her sin to all and sundry. Now, adultery was punishable by stoning, but because the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus, they abandon the strict upholding of the law, and use the woman for their own ends. Never mind her embarrassment and shame and guilt, never mind the curious, leering crowds, never mind that they are stepping way over the mark of upholding the law and are using it cruelly and selfishly - for here is a chance to trick Jesus.

"Moses says such a woman should be stoned. What do you say?" If Jesus says "yes, Moses is right" he is condemning her to death. He will fall foul of the Roman authorities who like to pronounce the death penalty themselves, and he will fall foul of his followers who are beginning to see that in Jesus a new quality of life is possible. Here is someone whose teaching is mysterious and difficult but who seems to be in touch with God in a way that makes sense in the things that matter. Here is someone they long to be with, someone who might have a better solution to sin than death.

If Jesus says "no, she should not be stoned", the implication is ‘Moses is wrong’ and he is in conflict with the religious authorities, which is exactly what they want.

Well, Jesus doesn’t answer with a straight yes or no, he doesn’t even answer with a diplomatic ‘on the one hand X but on the other Y’. He pauses, draws attention away from the woman and onto some doodles on the ground, and then points up the key issue - who is faultless enough to judge the woman? Who is innocent? Is this woman, admittedly caught in a serious sin, really any worse than the religious leaders? Their obvious malice and salacious zeal for the woman’s sin, their disregard for her, their underhand plot to trap Jesus - these are hardly the justice which God loves. And who knows what lurks in their past, or in their thoughts, which doesn’t ring true with their zeal for God’s law?

"That one of you who is faultless may throw the first stone" says Jesus. Then again, he draws attention away, doodling on the floor. And one by one the accusers slip away - judging themselves, seeing themselves as they really are. Not faultless and, in the presence of Jesus, suddenly no longer able to bluster and pretend.

And Jesus, left alone with the woman, still has no word of condemnation. Why should he, really? She more than knows her sin, she knows why and how, she knows the penalty and knows why it was no deterrent - and now she is alone with Jesus who sees her through and through. And he doesn’t condemn her. But neither does he condone her - he doesn’t give her sin any other label. But he sends her off with a real gift of trust - "do not sin again". Unless that is simply wishful thinking, or an cruelly impossible demand, we have to suppose that it includes some sort of promise that a new lifestyle was possible - that a new possibility really was opened up for her by their meeting. That in this encounter with Jesus, somehow he gave her new access to some instinct, some capacity in herself for living well. The woman wasn’t magically removed from the situation where temptation was strong and attractive, but she was trusted to live differently. That is not "letting off the hook" but insisting (even demanding) responsibility and single-mindedness, a readiness to get up when you’ve fallen down - but it does give hope and dignity.

I guess it comes to all of us that, like the woman, we are publicly confronted with our own wretchedness, desperately exposed - and also that, like the Pharisees, we simply have to crawl away and agonise in private. When we are dreadfully confronted with our worst true selves. And Christ is gracious and discreet, and infinitely demanding - of us too. He sees us through and through - so much so that we really see ourselves. He opens to us new possibilities to be our best selves, not our worst selves - and is infinitely demanding that we be that self which he gives to us and trusts to us.

So, how about that as a way in to Lent? Lent is a preparation for Easter, for the cross and the resurrection - the decisive events in which Christ defeats all that holds us captive and restores to us the possibility of being our true self, being who God intends us to be. Not just in a private sense of well-being, but in a way that demands real self-insight and real commitment to the whole human community - which restores to us the possibility of acting justly, of really taking the other into account. If that is what Easter is about, then Lent is not about renunciation and "shriving" for their own sake, but about attentiveness - giving up distractions for a while, letting go of some of the things with which we bolster ourselves, giving up a few false pretensions or a few too-easy comforts, daring to remain open a little longer than we usually manage. Risking the kind of encounter with Jesus that the gospels are full of - an encounter in which he sees us and hears us and knows us through and through, so that we come to know ourselves as he knows us, and so that we can receive our real selves (like the woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders). I think it’s that seeing and knowing and receiving which is the real heart of repentance. Not grovelling, but standing in the piercing gaze of Jesus and receiving the really new possibilities for living that he entrusts to us. That is what we open ourselves to when we accept the ash and the bread and the wine tonight - we receive, really receive, the gift of our true selves.

George Morley, lay reader
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 28th February 1998