But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 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.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
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. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.1
-John 8:6-11 (NIV)
I just wanted a chicken sandwich.
That’s all. I like the chicken sandwiches at that place, and there’s not one close to me. So, on a visit to Tennessee, I decided to stop by. But it was Wednesday night, and I didn’t know that supporters of the chain’s stance against gay marriage had planned to show their support by eating there. The line that ran out into the mall discouraged me somewhat. The politics swirling around a chicken sandwich decided me. Having a chicken sandwiches shouldn’t be a political statement or a thought crime. I’d have a chicken sandwich tomorrow, instead.
The woman could have been a chronic liar. She might have been a thief. That she had been caught in adultery doesn’t make her different from a dishonest executive, a corrupt government official, a violent husband, an abusive father, or an employee who steals time from his employer. We assume sexual sin is somehow worse than other sins, and that certain kinds of sexual sin are worse yet. But whether she was an adulteress, or a liar, or even in a homosexual relationship, the root problem was the same. She was living a life of sin. She was a sinner.
You may have noticed that the world is full of them. Sinners, that is.
It’s a label that’s sometimes used as a weapon: to exclude, to condemn, to differentiate between “us” and “them.” When it’s used that way, of course, it’s by people who don’t consider themselves sinners - at least by and large. It’s usually religious people who use the label that way.2 It’s an easy way, I guess, for church people to deal with the fact that there are those in the world who don’t share our moral compasses. The exclusion and judgment that “sinners” sometimes associate with the church is the path of least resistance. It allows us to hold on to the moral high ground without having to help people wrestle with faith, or without the inconvenience of being a part of the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming human lives. Just call them “sinners,” feign a little sorrow that “small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to salvation,” and tell yourself that you’ve done everything you can. Or at least everything you have to do.
The fact is, of course, that many issues of morality in our culture have become political issues. While some of us who are Christians still speak the language of sin and morality, we really mean to talk about who’s in charge, who’s in power, who calls the shots. That’s why gay marriage has become the issue du jour; it’s the perfect blend of politics and morality, the perfect backdrop for the power struggle that we perceive to be going on for “the soul of America,” or whatever we choose to label it.
That’s the power struggle that the teachers of the Law and Pharisees are fighting when they bring the woman to Jesus. On their face, the facts are easy - as easy as, well, as this woman apparently is. “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they say. And they’re not wrong. Except that they’re really fighting another battle. As far as they’re concerned, it’s them vs. Jesus, with Traditional Values themselves at stake.
But Jesus isn’t fighting their battle. Their Traditional Values aren’t his, and in the tension of the moment Jesus bends down and writes on the ground. We don’t know what he wrote. The story doesn’t tell us. Some interpreters think he was writing Bible verses. Some think he was jotting down a list of the sins of the assembled mob. Whatever he was writing, by writing it he gave the woman’s accusers room to think about their own sins and motivations. Why are they so concerned with condemning this woman? Why is it so easy for them to see her sin, and so easy for them to dismiss their own? How could morality so easily become so self-serving?
And it only takes that moment of thought for the moral high ground they were standing on to slip away beneath their feet.
A moment of thought is exactly what those of us who so easily slip into the role of modern-day Pharisees and teachers of the Law need. A moment to think about our own sins. A moment to think about the mercy our God has shown us, and the mercy he would show all of his creation. A moment to consider how we respond when accusations are heated and those of us who know God’s love best ought to have a redemptive word to speak.
After the woman’s accusers have left, of course, Jesus says two things to the woman. Two things, and in the correct order. First, he says, “Neither do I condemn you.” And, if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need to show through love and friendship that we don’t condemn those who live sinful lives. We can disagree with them. We can and should let them know of our convictions. But above all they must know we love them, or we’ve missed Jesus’ heart. And they’ll only know when we live with them, when we’re faithful to them, when we stand up for them - when we show them day after day.
Second, Jesus tells the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Only after we’ve loved someone do we have the credibility to say this. Only after we’ve shown them that our love for them, like God’s, is unconditional, might they listen to us when we say, “You need to change your life.” Not because we say so, but because their Creator and Lord say so. Not because we’ll stop loving them if they don’t, but because God’s love for them never stops.
I don’t think Jesus would have lined up Wednesday to eat a chicken sandwich. Neither do I think he’d boycott the whole chain. Somehow, I think he might want to elevate the controversy. To remind people on both sides of the love of his Father and the hope of the kingdom. And to remind those of us who wear his name to think a moment about our own experience of God’s grace before we presume to open our mouths to say anything to a sinner.
Maybe over a chicken sandwich?
1 I’m aware that current scholarship doesn’t consider this story an original part of the Gospel of John. While I don’t disagree with that position, there are a fair number of scholars who do consider the story a genuine part of the Jesus tradition, whether it belongs in the Gospel of John or not.
2 Non-religious people use other terms to label and marginalize those who disagree with their worldviews. Charges of “intolerance” and “hate” are currently two favorites.