Scripture: Isaiah 65: 17-25; John 8: 1-11
Throwing the first stone can lead to terrible consequences. Jesus avoided a woman’s death when he challenged the Temple officials on throwing the first stone at a woman taken in adultery. But this is more than a Biblical story.
This Advent, my thoughts have been on what kind of Jesus we are waiting for. Last week, I focussed on the prophetic Jesus who calls us to holiness. Today’s readings offer us something that seems different, but yet is similar.
The Glorious New Creation
The heading to the Isaiah reading in my Bible is The Glorious New Creation. It seems to speak of the Second Coming. God will “wave the magic wand” and put to rights everything wrong in the world. People will live disease-free to a ripe old age. Everyone will have homes and live in safety. Even the wild animals will live in harmony with each other. In other words, God will recreate Paradise, the Garden of Eden.
My problem with this is the idea that God will do all this for us. We just have to wait passively for it to happen. As you know, my theology says that faith without works is dead. I believe that if we want God’s glorious Kingdom to come on earth, we have to get off our backsides and work to make it happen. And further, I believe that our Gospel reading has something to say to us about it.
The woman taken in adultery
The story is a famous one. The Temple officials – the scribes and the Pharisees – brought to Jesus a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. They remind Jesus that the Law of Moses says that she should suffer death by stoning.
Actually, that is not quite correct. Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22: 21-22 both state clearly that both the man and the woman shall be put to death, although they don’t specify death by stoning. I also have to wonder where the man was. If the woman was caught in the act of adultery, the man must have been there too! But let’s let that pass … It was, after all, a very patriarchal society.
Eventually, Jesus replied that the person who is without sin should be throwing the first stone. The accusers all slunk away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. I don’t think that they left because they reflected on how sinful they were. It was something else. The Law of Moses said that the actual witnesses to a crime should be first to exact punishment for it [Deuteronomy 17:7]. That explains the ensuing conversation between Jesus and the woman. “Woman where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” “No-one, sir.” “Then I will not condemn you. Go on your way and sin no more.”
What did Jesus do?
The issue for Jesus was not whether the woman was innocent or guilty, but whether she was prepared to change her behaviour going forward. “Go on your way and sin nor more,” This passage depicts the Jesus that we all know and love. He offered forgiveness instead of harsh punishment. We see his compassion towards women that went counter to the patriarchy of that society. Jesus was not judgemental, with quick condemnation of other people. We find Jesus’ same attitude elsewhere in the Gospels, e.g., when he healed on the Sabbath. That displeased the Pharisees. But Jesus had the confidence not to adhere slavishly to the conventional written ethical and legal code.
Relevance of the story to today
All this is a pretty standard interpretation of the story. But I saw in it an aspect of behaviour that is very relevant in our own day. Who is prepared to throw the first stone, literally or figuratively? As a group, the Temple officials were ready to incite mob behaviour. They knew that as soon as one person threw a stone, other bystanders would join in. There would be mob frenzy. Stones would fly until the woman died.
To my eyes, Jesus made it clear that the first stone-thrower would be personally and morally responsible for the woman’s death. The Temple officials recognized what he meant. The situation would quickly escalate out of control. Jesus didn’t save the woman’s life by standing physically in the way of the first stone. He just made the first would-be stone-thrower see his responsibility for what would happen.
It’s the same thing when riots start. Riots often lead to looting – when someone is literally throwing the first stone through a store window. I can see how other people would react. “If it’s OK for that guy to break a window and steal a TV, why shouldn’t I?” There’s no Jesus around to say, “Hey, Joe, if you break that window, I’ll make you personally responsible for all the damage and theft that happens afterwards.”
This past October 7th, Devan Bracci-Selvey, age 14, was stabbed to death outside his high school in Hamilton, right in front of his mother. Two teenagers have been charged with his murder. They are the ones that society holds responsible. But kids had bullied Devan for weeks before the stabbing. We don’t know who started it. But whoever it was gave the green light to others, by “throwing the first stone”.
This doesn’t excuse the boys who allegedly stabbed Devan. But it helps to explain that the first bully set in motion an increasing cycle of violence. It became acceptable to pick on Devan. I don’t suggest that the first bully could have known what would happen in the end. But unfortunately, there was no Jesus at hand make the challenge, “Who wants to start the bullying? Because you will be responsible for whatever happens down the road.”
Examining our own behaviour
That leads me to a very uncomfortable thought. I’ll put it on my own head, so as not to come across as too preachy. Every time I say something unkind or discriminatory, I might start a chain of behaviour that could lead to something much worse than my original comment.
One of our prayers of Confession reminds us that we have not always spoken kindly; we have kept silence instead of speaking the truth.
It behoves me to look in the mirror. I do not always model the right behaviour. There are times when I need to have Jesus say to me, “Hey, Nigel, watch what you say. You don’t know where it might lead.” At other times, I might have to play the role of Jesus and say the same thing to someone else. “Hey, Jimmy or Susie, watch what you say. You don’t know where it might lead.” And just in case I might try to shrug it off by saying, “I’m no Jesus”, we frequently pray that we might lead Christ-like lives. We even sing, in the words of the hymn Sister let me be your servant, “Let me be as Christ to you.” Do we really mean it?
Discipleship isn’t easy
Last week’s Gospel reading included these words. “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the path is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. The gate that leads to eternal life is narrow and the path is hard, and there are few who find it” [Matthew 7: 13-14].
People often say that liberal mainline churches promote a wishy-washy kind of Christianity. I disagree. It’s hard to love your neighbour and not be judgemental when the rubber hits the road. Would I have been like Jesus when the adulterous woman was brought to me? I doubt it. Not that I think that I would have been the one throwing the first stone. I’d probably have just kept my mouth shut. Like the Temple officials, I’d probably have looked the other way.“We keep silence instead of speaking the truth.”