read John 8. I doubt there’s a human alive who doesn’t wish he could be more loving. We all wish we could love others better – that we could “really love them” as St. Paul puts it, “not just pretend to”. At times we do love others. But far too often we feel cold toward people. We can feel trapped – by pride, by judgment, condemnation and having a hard heart toward others. We don’t want to be that way, yet if we’re honest with ourselves, far too often we just are. Sometimes we can see only the bad in others, as much as we want to appreciate them. What’s the solution? How can we be free of judgment and just love others?
In John 8 we find one of the most famous passages of Scripture – the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Her accusers haul her in front of Jesus, and a large crowd surrounds them. They tell Jesus that the woman has been “caught in adultery.” They remind Him that the law of Moses says to stone her. And they ask how He wants to handle it, because they are trying to “trap” him.
The encounter has always struck me as intimate at the same time as being so public. There’s high drama – crowds, accusations, yelling, plots, jealousy, stones, hypocrisy, betrayal (by the adulterous man who is not even here alongside the woman he has just slept with) and murder. And yet there’s also something gentle. There’s the quietness with which Christ writes in the dust. There’s the quiet dawning in the hearts of the accusers – ‘one by one’ they leave. And then there’s this tender, kind, honest, moment between Christ and the woman.
In other words, there are two opposing rhythms visible in this story. We see one type of rhythm in the behavior of the accusers. They’re harsh, hard, sharp and angry. They have stones. They’re trying to force Jesus’ hand. They want to kill.
Jesus shows a different kind of rhythm. He is gentle. He stoops. He waits. He listens. He writes with his finger in the dust. He answers. He stoops again. He waits. He sets the woman free. He reveals in just a few verses what the Message translation of the Bible calls the “unforced rhythms of grace.”
The difference between the accusers’ harshness and Jesus’ gentleness goes far deeper than just personality or style. It is instead the difference between darkness and light; lies and truth; the law and grace; God and man. Here’s what I mean.
Notice how the accusers “slip away” one by one, when Jesus tells them that the person who is without sin may throw the first stone. It’s as if they have taken on Jesus’ rhythm. Their reaction seems strange. In saying that only the sinless can stone, Jesus seems to have done exactly what the religious leaders were hoping for. It looks like Jesus has been “blasphemous.” He has seemingly added to the law of Moses. But instead, it seems that Jesus “trapped” the accusers back. They are all standing in front of a crowd which presumably has known them since their childhood. So if any of the accusers threw a stone, they would be testifying against themselves – they would be lying. Because every one of the accusers has sinned; and they are standing before people who know their sin. Even if the accusers had said: “that’s not the law!”, it would have been a de facto admission of guilt. Even to protest Jesus’ rule would be to admit sin.
It seems likely the reason the accusers slip away goes even deeper than their admission of guilt. Perhaps they leave, the “eldest first” because they recognize truth in the law itself. Jesus has just stated a law of the universe, as immovable as the laws of gravity: the only one who can stand in judgment against another human is a person without sin.
When the accusers let this truth sink in, they, too, take on a new rhythm – the unforced rhythm of grace.
Ironically, according to this law – that only a person without sin could throw a stone – there was one person in the crowd who could have thrown a stone: Jesus “was without sin”. But Jesus chose not to. Instead, He took the stones upon himself – as foreshadowed at the end of the chapter when the people took up stones to kill him, but it wasn’t yet his “time” so he slipped away.
So if the only hands that can actually judge us have nail marks in them instead of judgment, God is asking each of us to stop throwing “stones” at each other. He is begging us to stop judging and accusing and condemning each other, and instead to meet each other with pity, compassion, empathy and love. He wants us to see each other “a long way off” and run out to “embrace” each other with compassion, just like the father of the prodigal son.
If we were able to do this, if we were truly able to stop throwing “stones” at each other, our lives would be radically different. Our lives radiate joy and peace. The “light of the world” would have entered our darkness. But the problem is, even if we accept that Jesus is right, just as the accusers do here, we go on judging each other anyway. We go on judging by “human standards”. Why? What’s our problem?
The obstacle to the kind of joyful loving living to which God calls us lies in the chilling truth that Jesus gives us here in this chapter about our enemy, the devil. Jesus says that the devil is a “murderer”; the devil “hates truth”;” the devil has “no truth in him”: the devil is “a liar”; and that the devil is the “father of all lies.” Jesus says that people who refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God can’t understand because they “can’t even hear” Jesus. The devil, our accuser, shouts in our ears all day long a loud message of hate. The devil would like to bind us up in lies like these: you’re not good enough You’ll never be good enough. The world would be better off without you. You’re wasting your time, no matter what you do. No one loves you. How could anyone love you, you’re unlovable? I could go on, but you get the drift. The enemy’s game is blame and shame – you messed up, and of course you messed up, because you are a mess.
We humans try to silence the devil’s lies about ourselves with a different lie. We go around trying to prove that we’re not a mess. We spend most of our waking hours proving we are “good”. But that, because it’s not the truth either, doesn’t free us. Instead, like all lies, the lie that we are “good” just traps us in more pride, isolation, and condemnation of others. It causes us to feel the need to put others down, in order to try to elevate ourselves. But this just makes us feel lonelier, more anxious, and more unhappy.
So why do we even listen to the devil’s accusations? Are we humans so dumb that we listen to lies instead of truth, to hatred instead of love, to murder instead of pardon, and murder instead of life? Yes, apparently we are. It’s not so much a question of being “dumb” however, as of being trapped. We are, all of us, trapped by pride. Pride separates us from others. Pride lies to us that we are better than others. Pride isolates us. Pride causes us to live hard, cold, lonely little lives.
So what’s the solution? How do we break free? How do we stop throwing stones at each other and instead run and join the party of the redeemed?
The good news is that there’s freedom in failure. When we mess up enough, and lose people because we condemned them instead of appreciating them, it cracks us open. In our failure, we cry out to God, and we find His strength. The solution, paradoxically, to loving more, lies in our lack of love. If God’s strength is made “perfect” in our weakness, the weaker we are, the more perfect we become – in Him.
In other words, the answer is that we can’t break free on our own. But God can. He works through our failures. He works through the very thing the devil is trying to make us ignore and avoid. The enemy wants us to think we’re better than others, because admitting we’re not – in other words, being truthful – opens us up to the possibility of a relationship with the living breathing God. This is the truth that sets us free. This is the message of grace. Jesus says to each of us that we’re not good, but we’re completely loved. He says we’re imperfect, but we’re accepted through the blood of the Son. He says we’re all a mess, but we’re welcomed with open arms into the family of God – as free children, not slaves – because the Son has set us free.
Knowing the truth sets us free – and Truth is a person. We can know Him, and love Him, and let Him love us. In Jesus, we can have the walls of our glass houses shattered. Those glass walls make a lot of noise as they break. Standing vulnerable and free, without any defensive walls of false pride, feels strange – but it’s the only option if we want joy. So the harder and longer we go on throwing stones and condemning others, the more room for God to come in, crack us open, and change everything. We love more, paradoxically, by knowing we can’t. We love when we allow – no, beg – God to come and live in us, and be strong in the very places that we are weak.
posted by Caroline Coleman on April 25, 2012 in carolinecolemanbooks.com