Let us pray…As we come to your Word this morning, Lord, help us to hear your truth. Show us how to understand the lesson Jesus teaches and give us the courage to put that lesson into to practice in our lives. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.
I want you to think back for a moment to when you were a kid on the playground. Did you ever hear anyone say: “Liar, liar, pants on fire; your nose is longer than a telephone wire”? How about this one: “Steve and Cindy sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G; first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Cindy with a baby carriage”? And, of course there’s: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. Kids today may have a whole new set of cruel phrases to say to one another, but you get the idea. What makes this whole matter worse is that social media now gives people the opportunity to be cyber bullies…To say anything under the cover of a Facebook ID with no consequences. You have probably heard of more than one instance where the victim of cyber bullies eventually committed suicide in response. Words DO HURT.
When children are cruel to one another we try to tell them to ignore it. “Don’t pay any attention to what those kids say.” “Their opinions don’t matter; just ignore them.” “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. But that’s not true and we know it…words sting and it does matter what other people say to and about us; especially when you are young and already fighting for your self-esteem. A teenage girl walks by a group of popular kids at school as one of them – just enough too loud – “Lisa sure has packed on the pounds! Oink!” Lisa may laugh it off in the hallway, but she heads for the nearest restroom and melts into tears. Over the next few months she’ll visit that same restroom a lot; only now it’s to purge the rice cakes and salad she just ate in the cafeteria. We’ve all heard the stories; you may even know someone with an eating disorder. Or a parent carelessly calls his college-aged son “lazy” or “stupid” or “clumsy” or “irresponsible”. The boy doesn’t seem to care; he just goes off to his room, turns his headphones up loud, and spends more time on the Internet. But inside, a little piece of him dies of humiliation. He longs for approval and gets thoughtless words.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can sting like anything”…That should be the phrase. What’s worse is people do it all the time and sometimes they even do it on purpose. Someone once said that the tongue is the most powerful muscle in the body. It only weighs a quarter pound, but in a single moment, it can destroy a person’s reputation or demolish their sense of self-worth. That has always been true; it just seems to be more true in this age of mass communication, “rag mags”, social media, and our insatiable lust for knowing all the gory details of other people’s lives, even when it’s really none of our business.
To fully appreciate the gospel story this morning it’s helpful to understand how the Temple Mount was laid out. The Temple itself is surrounded by grounds where there is lots of open space, clusters of trees, and many areas where people could gather to study together. You might compare it to the Quad on a large college campus where you find many different students scattered around in their own little study groups. It is into this scene that Jesus enters that day. People gather around him to hear his teaching. They are outside in the open, but they are obviously involved in their study of whatever it is Jesus has chosen to teach. So the Pharisees walk up to Jesus’ group, dragging “a woman who had been caught in adultery”. Now scripture doesn’t tell us if the woman is naked, but we might assume that, if she was actually caught in the act of adultery, I doubt they gave her a chance to throw on a robe. They were hauling her off to be tried and executed; her personal embarrassment was of no concern to them. “Teacher,” they begin, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
“Such women. Such women!” Really?! That’s a label that must have stung the woman, standing there in her shame, unable to even raise her eyes. And we can only imagine how the rest of the crowd must have chimed in: “She’s a slut, a whore!” “She’s just trash!” “She needs to be stoned to death! That’s the Law!” In reality, stoning her would probably have been merciful; she was already dying a slow and painful death as the people shouted horrible things at her. She may have been thinking, “I didn’t do this by myself; I’m not alone in my shame.” Her life was already ruined…humiliated on the Temple Mount, in front of her neighbors, her community and here in front of Jesus. So here’s this crowd of religious leaders and students of the Torah shouting and shaming the woman caught in adultery. Maybe two hundred eyes glaring at her; two hundred hands picking up stones of judgment to hurl at her until she eventually goes unconscious and bleeds to death.
Yet there is one pair of eyes that refuse to stare. Jesus looked at the ground and began writing in the dirt. He refused to add to the woman’s humiliation. Jesus refused to condemn her; even though he was the only one there who was qualified to do so. “Here’s what I say,” Jesus finally spoke to silence the self-righteous crowd. “Whoever has never sinned, you may cast the first stone at this woman.” Go ahead, if your life is perfect and without sin, go ahead and throw those stones; let her have it! One by one, the people dropped their stones on the ground and walked away. It’s interesting that the first to go were the elders. As we age, it seems we become more aware of our shortcomings and more honest about our own failures. Eventually, even the youngest among them got the message and moved on. Now the fact is that the Law did say she deserved to die; after all, she was caught in the act; there is no denying guilt here. But Jesus showed us a different way of handling things; compassion won the day. This time, love was more powerful than justice. “Is there no one left to condemn you,” Jesus asked. “No sir,” the woman replied. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separate”. The Pharisees were a group who adhered strictly to the Levitical Law and set themselves apart from those who disagreed with them. They were the first to point out the sins of others and demand the harshest punishment. Jesus condemned the Pharisees, not because of their love for the Law, but for their lack of compassion and their insistence on the letter of the law instead of its spirit of mercy and forgiveness. In today’s Christian culture we need to wonder if the attitude of the Pharisees is still an issue. Do we take pride in the fact that we’re not like “those people” who are addicted, or those who steal, or those who can’t make their marriage work, or those whose children run amok? Would we throw stones at those who do not act like us, or think like us, or speak like us, or believe what we believe? Christians are better than all of “those people”; we’ve earned the right to cast stones. That’s what the Pharisees thought and Jesus told them they were wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me here: Jesus did not say that the sinner was innocent; in fact, he told her to “go and sin no more.” But he did suggest that she deserved the compassion of those who wanted to stone her to death. He told them that only the sinless had the right to condemn; the rest of us should show mercy. As we look back on this story today I think it’s easy for us to agree with Jesus and say the woman deserved a second chance. Yet we find ourselves being critical of people we see making mistakes and breaking the rules. We can forgive an adulterous woman in a Bible story, but we cannot forgive or even tolerate an adulterous politician. We resent the actions of the Pharisees, with their self-righteous judgments, yet we don’t hesitate to cry out for judgment and punishment of people who get caught in the act today. We have become the rigid, unbending, religious; eager to cast the first stone.
I hope we can hear this message today as a call and a challenge for us to be more grace-filled. I am not suggesting that everyone here is a self-righteous, judgmental Pharisee. What I am suggesting is that, sometimes, all of us allow our passion to override our sense of compassion. Sometimes we all get angry or frustrated and we react by looking for someone to blame and someone to punish. Sometimes we all fail to notice when we say something hurtful to or about someone else. We are human and sometimes we behave badly; that is just an unpleasant truth about all of us. What I hope this morning is that we can recognize that sometimes we stand with stones at the ready and this is our chance to let them fall to the ground. Come to the cross and leave your stone here today instead of using it as a weapon. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.