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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Line Your Tiger Trap (with first stones)

John 8:3-11

It is a regrettable fact that our generation takes an exceedingly tolerant view of adultery. We glamorize it as “having an affair.” Playboy magazine assures us that it is very healthy and adult and normal; in fact, the people with the problem are those who are faithful. It is difficult to realize that this is an extremely unusual view in history. Most people of most times considered adultery to be a vicious sin. Indeed, the ancient Hebrew Mishnah codified it such that three crimes were worthy of death: idolatry, murder -- and adultery.

The incident in today’s lesson comes from such a society:

(John 8:3-11 NIV) The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group {4} and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. {5} In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" {6} They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. {7} When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." {8} Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. {9} At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. {10} Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" {11} "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

This story is all the more interesting in that Jesus actually increases the scope of what is meant by “adultery.”

(Mat 5:27-28 NIV) "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' {28} But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

(Luke 16:18 NIV) "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


We indeed have a very different idea of what is truly wicked. It is well for us to remember that we are in the minority. Most of the world considered adultery so evil as to be completely reprehensible. (Perhaps you think this is not a recent change. Do you know how many presidents have ever been divorced and remarried before entering the White House? Just one -- Ronald Reagan).

It was less than a hundred years ago that a man might easily expect to serve serious jail time for adultery. How should the authorities view this “victimless crime?” The Pharisees were the original “law and order” types. Censorious, judgmental, they would have fit in quite well with the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality so prevalent today. And like a lot of our politicians today, this would have nothing to do with crime, criminal or victim. The woman in our story is a pawn in a larger struggle, just as criminal and victim are in our politics today.

Our sense of justice seems overwhelmed today. We ask ourselves, “what about the victim’s rights?” We can but echo the Psalmist’s words:

(Psa 50:16 NIV) But to the wicked, God says: "What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?

Note the phrase: “God says.” Man’s justice is imperfect, and therefore we need the protection of the presumption of innocence, the discretion of judges who may be lenient at need, indeed all those things so much in current disfavor.

Christians are fond of passing judgment on the world. We need to remember that we not only do not have that right, we are expressly forbidden to pass judgment on those outside the church. You think not?

(1 Cor 5:12 NIV) What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

There is a fundamental trap in judging others. Our Lord puts it this way:

(Mat 7:1-5 NIV) "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. {2} For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. {3} "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? {4} How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? {5} You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

It is not just that we will be judged by our own standards -- tough enough. It is also that judgment awakens our own sense of sin; it reminds us of our secret desires.

Do you remember Wile E. Coyote? One of my favorite cartoons with Wile E. and the Roadrunner starts with the old gag of Latin names. The Roadrunner comes on (velocitus incredibulus) followed by the Coyote (famishus vulgaris). Later in the cartoon, Wile E. constructs a genuine Burmese tiger trap -- which of course yields a genuine Burmese tiger (surprisibus! surprisibus!). That’s us, in judgment -- building a trap into which we fall ourselves.[1]

There is another aspect to this, one which we forget. When we bring someone to God for judgment, when we ask God to vent our anger upon someone else, we are in fact testing the Lord. We are asking him to be an accuser. Think of it as if it were a civil suit -- we are asking God to file suit against our brother, to become the “plaintiff.” God is not our accuser. Indeed, as Christ pointed out to the Pharisees[2], the accuser of our souls is the light we know. Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses would be their accuser on Judgment Day, for Moses is the light they had.

The Trap

That the Pharisees were seeking to trap Jesus with this question is undoubted; it is clear from the Scripture. The nature of that trap, however, is perhaps more subtle than might be obvious from the Scripture. Certain points have been suggested in the normal commentaries; I suspect, however, that a deeper meaning may be obtained.

·         One point is clear from all writers. The Jews did not have authority from the Roman government to execute this woman. Indeed, it would have been viewed as political uprising. So, taken at face value, this confronts Jesus with either denying the Law of Moses (which He steadfastly refused to do) or advocating open rebellion against Rome (which he also steadfastly refused to do)[3].

·         Another view which has been advanced is that the trap puts Jesus in the position of either losing the reputation as the “friend of the sinner” (by advocating the stoning) or of defying the Law of Moses. This is a relatively modern view; I suspect it is conditioned by our much greater tolerance of adultery. Besides, as far as I can tell, Jesus did the will of His Father -- no matter the popularity of the action.

·         There is a much more subtle trap, unnoticed by most of the commentators. This is an invitation to join the power structure. Think about it. There had been radical rabbis before this (and after). All of the great ones eventually wound up as being part of the law and commentaries. How? By co-opting them into the system. Jesus has but to comment, “Isn’t it a shame that we can’t stone her as the Law commands” or “This Roman rule which nullifies God’s Law is God’s punishment for Israel’s lack of keeping the Law in detail” and He’s in. He now becomes a rebel within the system -- and the system knows how to deal with such.

The defense against this is given by Jesus:

(Mat 10:16 NIV) I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Purity -- knowing the evil and refusing it -- is the Christian’s first defense against the world’s quicksand.

Why did the trap fail? The Pharisees did not credit Jesus with what He said. He told them His purpose, but they did not believe it. They believed He would be like them. His purpose was different, and it is this we must examine next.

The Purpose of Christ

It is important to note that Jesus did not find fault with the Law. He does not explain (as He does elsewhere) that the Law has its limits -- in the human heart. Nor does he excuse the woman. In fact, he has only deferred judgment -- until he comes again. For now, “Go and sin no more” as the old King James had it, is his command.

The purpose of Christ is clear:

(John 3:17 NIV) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Indeed, it is just possible that Christ has extended an opportunity for grace not only to the adulteress but to the Pharisees! The traditional interpretation of the writing on the ground is that Jesus was writing out the sins of the Pharisees. This is a late interpretation, and is not well supported in the earliest writings. It is entirely possible that it is due to a mistranslation into Armenian. There is a simpler explanation. Perhaps Jesus was using this to force the Pharisees to repeat their request; to listen to their own words; to say, silently, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Jesus never hesitated to pronounce woe on the Pharisees; why didn’t he do it this time? Perhaps because he saw that if he just gave them a little time, they too would repent of this gross evil.

There is in this a great lesson. In times like ours the Christian is tempted to view himself as the moral conscience of the world. The world sees this as the Christian judging the world, and that we must not do. But so many of us don’t see it that way. I remember one church with whom I worshipped. They explained their “entrance exam” for church membership this way: “we must preserve the character of our witness to the world.” If the purpose of Christ was to make us an example of holy purity to shine before the world, I might agree. And Christ indeed wants us to be such an example. But that is not His purpose. He came to seek and save the lost.

We are the body of Christ. We are commanded to preach the Gospel; to make disciples, to baptize -- but there is no mention of judgment. We are His body, and I submit that therefore we are to perform His purpose. And to this end I submit some practical tests.

Practical Tests

Just how much are we willing to do?

It is interesting that there are socially acceptable sins and those which are not so acceptable. For example, divorce and adultery are things we “understand.” The divorcee is now accepted in church in a way that 50 years ago would have been unthinkable. But there are some sins which just don't commend themselves to our new, tolerant mode:

·         How would you feel sitting next to someone with AIDS in the worship service this morning?

·         What about a garden variety homosexual?

·         A prostitute (especially one who’s good looking?)

·         O. J. Simpson?

I suspect that most will say, “well, as long as they confess their sins” (and of course a public display of repentance would be most appropriate). But -- think about it -- when did you ever do that in public. One of the bravest women I know stood in front of a congregation and admitted she was pregnant out of wedlock -- and asked the congregation’s help in raising the child. (She got it; the child turned out fine, and many years later mom married Prince Charming). That’s courage; have you done likewise? If not, don’t be so quick to demand it of others.

Polite people don’t confess in public; only “wicked sinners” need to do that -- or so we believe. We deny that, but we act it out every week.

Are there people who won’t “make it” here?

At one of the stuffiest churches I ever attended we had a visitor. He was a biker -- and not shy about displaying it. The anxiety on the part of the congregation -- the thought that he might sit in your pew -- was absolutely tangible. Why? Because he was different. In little ways we make it clear who belongs and who doesn’t. Are we willing to go out of our way to abandon this distinction?

What can I do to extend the grace of God?

It is not sufficient to say, “Oh, I can tolerate anyone who comes to church.” People are still people. If they don’t feel welcome in the house of God, why would they come back? Think of it this way: if the restaurant has a sign outside that says, “We’re famous for our friendly service,” but the waiters are surly, will you eat there again? What can we do to let people know that God loves them?

I titled this lesson, “Line your tiger trap with first stones.” All of us have “first stones” to throw. We can dig the Burmese tiger trap; we can line it with our first stones, but -- surprisibus, surprisibus -- it’s likely that we’ll be the ones in the pit (and with the tiger). There is something else you can do with those first stones, however. You can continually push them away from you, to the right and to the left. If you do, you will form a nice channel -- where the living waters of grace may flow freely.

[1] See Proverbs 26:27

[2] John 5:45

[3] Matthew 5:17

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