It’s February…so it’s time for a love story.
And first, it’s a love story that had gone terribly wrong. A woman is caught in the act of adultery. She wasn’t alone but the man is never mentioned and plays no part in our story. We aren’t given any background on the woman or why she was with the man. He might have been a kind man who loved her and who wooed her or he might have been a client and she a prostitute. If you’re already thinking this isn’t much of a love story, you’re right but don’t pull that trigger yet. It gets better.
Women who were widowed often found themselves unable to feed themselves or their children. If another man did not come along to marry them and if they could not return to their father’s house for some reason they would sometimes turn to prostitution to survive. No welfare system or Social Security safety net was in place. Patriarchs of the Old Testament were not above using these women and discarding them afterward. Life can be brutal and it would be harder to imagine a harder life than that of a prostitute in first century Judea.
But she might not have been one. In the end, it doesn’t matter. That isn’t important to the love story we want to tell.
It is a story we almost didn’t get. It is in John’s Gospel but he didn’t write it. Before the sixth century, it almost never shows up in manuscripts and commenters didn’t mention it. But John himself said he didn’t write down everything that Jesus said and did and the story was important enough to early Christians to repeat and cherish until it was finally absorbed into our story at the beginning of John 8. Whew. That was a close one.
The woman is dragged before Jesus. Imagine her as you will. Some see her as angry and defiant. I see her as embarrassed, shamed, and broken hearted. Still, that doesn’t matter as much as what happens next. The men who caught her and dragged her before the young rabbi demanded to know what he would have done with her. The Old Testament law, they remind him, requires them to stone her to death for her sins. The rabbi wrote something in the dirt and then agreed with them. She deserved to die. Grab some rocks, boys. But first…he adds…let’s let the one who has no sins throw the first stone. Believe it or not, throwing the first stone was a bit of an honor as was holding the coats of those who threw the stones. All the rabbi asked was that someone throw the rock who didn’t deserve rocks thrown at him, too. He then stooped back down and wrote some more.
What did he write? That has been an object of speculation for a long time. Very early Jewish and Christian sources say he wrote the sins of those men standing there – you know, something like “Last Tuesday behind the market stall…A week ago, in a house down this street, when no one else was looking…” Stuff like that. One by one, the men dropped the rocks they were holding until even the youngest remembered his own sins, dropped the rock, and walked away.
The rabbi – and you know we are speaking of Jesus here – looked at the woman and asked her “Where are those who condemn you?” She is stunned at this turn of events and you can hear it in her reply that “They are gone. No one is here.” He then says something which makes this a love story. He says “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Whether this is a love story or not depends on which side of that rabbi’s statement you focus on. Most of the churches where I was raised would mention the forgiveness but make it dependent on that woman not sinning like that again but they got it wrong. Notice something very deep, very profound and, if I may say so, quite stunning: he forgives her and refuses to condemn her before even telling her to quit sinning. The forgiveness was automatic and came first.
It is a love story because of that. It is a love story because his hands were empty of stones and his arms were open before she changed a single thing in her life.
When a woman with uterine bleeding touched him in a crowd, Jesus had the right to pick up a rock and throw it at her. In fact, that was the law for she was breaking several Old Testament laws by being in public and daring to touch a man – a rabbi, even! But Jesus not only refused to pick up a rock, he opened his arms and called her “daughter,” the only person he called that sweet name in scripture.
Empty hands. Open arms.
When Peter denied Jesus three times in the very area where Jesus was being mistreated and brutalized he could expect nothing from a risen Lord other than pain and punishment. But he didn’t get it. Jesus asked to meet with him (Mark 16:7) and they had a private meeting. Jesus refused to punish Peter or cut him from his inner circle of close friends even after his horrible betrayal of him. Jesus met him with forgiveness and inclusion, not with stones and fists.
When we speak of these things we can make Christians nervous. “Are you weak on sin?” they ask. “Don’t you take sin seriously?” Of course I take sin seriously. I think we should be absolutely ruthless in confronting sin.
Our own sin.
Not that of others.
Others need a love story. And they get it in Jesus and in those who live like Jesus.
So when do we confront their sins? Jesus gave us the answer to that in Luke 6:41,42. You may go after their sin when you have none in your life. Period. Until then, love them and confront your own sin.
You see, if you have stones in your hands you have no way to receive the blessings he brings. It reminds me of the widow in 2 Kings 4. Told by the prophet that he will bless her, she brings in borrowed pots from her neighbors and the prophet prays. God answers by miraculously filling the pots with precious oil. He filled every pot she had brought before Him and no pot she didn’t. In other words, her blessing was limited by her openness and faith. That isn’t unusual. It is life. God will fill your hands and hearts with good things but you have to drop the rocks first or you can’t hold them.
Loving like this takes courage. Some will accuse you of winking at sin. Others will come at you as accepting the wrong kind of people or baptizing those who haven’t become perfect or nearly so.
But Jesus forgave first. Then he admonished. And he admonished us, too, to love each other, be known as his followers by the way we love each other, and to refuse to pick at each other’s sins until we are clear of sins ourselves.
And that makes this a love story.