There is a passage in John 8:3-11 that tells a fascinating story of grace and mercy. Some translators add a footnote to the text noting that this story may not be in the original manuscript. However, the story is absolutely in line with the rest of the gospel stories and much like Jesus.
Nonetheless, whether included in the first manuscripts or not, the encounter of Jesus with a woman caught in the act of adultery is rich with practical application for all Christ-followers.
Here’s the paraphrase of what happened.
Jesus was teaching in the temple courts with many people gathered around him. A bunch of men, the Pharisees, dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus and everybody else. They made her stand there as they shamed her and tried to trap Jesus into breaking the law of Moses that demanded she be stoned to death for her sin. (Where is the guy who did the deed with her? Hmmm.)
Jesus didn’t bite.
He bent over and started to doodle in the dirt with his finger. We have no idea what he wrote, but I think he was making a list of the sins of each of her accusers.
But the hyper-religious men wouldn’t let Jesus off the hook and kept badgering him.
So, Jesus stood up, looked these hypocrites in the eye, and said, “Whoever is perfect (i.e., without sin), you go ahead and cast the first stone.” Then Jesus bent over and returned to doing whatever he was doing on the ground.
Well, things didn’t go as they expected for this mean men’s club. Probably out of embarrassment, they exited one at a time, beginning with the older ones first. (We older guys typically have a lot more sins to account for on the list.)
The story ends with the woman standing in front of Jesus with a pile of rocks nearby. Jesus looked up at her and asked, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?”
I am pretty sure she was sobbing from relief about now, probably half-clothed and still very embarrassed as she bowed her head and said sheepishly, “No one has condemned me, sir.” (Deep sigh.)
Jesus then says the most incredible thing to her, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In case you need a word picture for grace, this is a great one.
I imagine the woman wiping her nose and eyes as she pulled her garment over her shoulders as best as she could to cover herself. Then she walks through the stunned crowd who are in awe of Jesus.
As I said, I love this story because it demonstrates the kindness, goodness, and mercy of Jesus so well.
Here’s what bugs me, though.
Like really truly ticks me off.
Most Christians enjoy using this story for two reasons.
First, it shows off how fantastic Jesus is. (That’s good.)
Second, they like to use the part about “go your way and stop sinning” as a warning and a “yeah-but” statement to those who are messed up. (That’s bad, and I'll explain why.)
Sadly, I hear something like this regularly from far too many Christians regarding this passage: Sure, Jesus didn’t want her dead, he didn’t condemn her, and she was forgiven, BUT Jesus sure as heck put the fear of God in her!
From their perspective, they suggest Jesus was tough on her (you know, that tough love thing), and his words and tone were a bit scary and very demanding. Alrighty, sweetheart, you got off easy this time, but you better cut it out and stop being so sinful. You can go on your way, BUT you better not screw up again!
Why are we so quick to use this story to put sinners in their place? Why are we still holding onto stones of judgment? Why do we think Jesus is rebuking her?
Isn’t it possible (and far more probable, knowing Jesus) that there was something wonderfully gentle and kind in Jesus’ admonition?
Instead of a warning or a threat, what if Jesus was tenderly telling her, Hon, this was the worst moment of your life. I know how shamed and horrible and embarrassed you feel right now. Listen, that’s not the heart of Abba for you. God’s not mad at you. And he and I care about you so much that I beg you to learn from this tragic moment. I don’t want you to ever have to go through this again.
Let me be clear.
Of course, Jesus wants us to stop sinning.
Undoubtedly, he wants us to make good choices moving forward.
But his words in the aftermath of our stupidity are not a veiled and challenging threat. SIN NO MORE OR ELSE!
Please hear his tenderness, acceptance, and love toward the woman that encouraged her to grow. Jesus doesn’t want this woman or any of us to hurt ourselves or others anymore.
You can land first and foremost on the “go your way and sin no more” part, or you can focus where Jesus started, “neither do I condemn you.”
Stop sinning. Yep.
Be better and smarter and wiser. Absolutely.
But the words that took her breath away (and stunned the crowd) were, “There’s no condemnation coming from me!”
So, please drop the tendency many Christians have to feel like they need to add a “yeah, but” warning to the grace of God.
You are forgiven, but…
You are accepted, but…
You are loved, but…
That’s not the heart of Father God toward us. There are no “yeah-buts” when it comes to God’s love.
His love is unconditional, unstoppable, and there is never anything we can do to make God love us any more or less than he already does.
End of story.
Roll the credits.
I love this quote by Robin R. Meyers from Saving Jesus from the Church, “Condemnation feels good, and it is now a staple of religion, politics, and the media (both left and right), but it changes nothing. Compassion, on the other hand, changes everything.”
Jesus knew this better than any of us. Condemnation (even through a veiled religious challenge) changes nothing, but love changes everything because love changes hearts.
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:17 (ESV)