Over the last week I have blogged a lot about confronting sinful behavior, wether it be moral sin, divisive behavior, or else. The passages that I have mentioned thus far (Matt 18:15-117; 1 Cor 5:1-7; Tit 3:9-11) have instructed some decisive responses to those who persists in sinful living (Read here, here, and here). In the middle of these posts I also tried to suggest that how we confront requires wisdom and that sometimes we need to exercise loving patience as we pursue grace and truth (read here). For this blog post I would like to discuss a different passage of scripture that will seem like a wildcard being played but it is nonetheless very important, I think, to this conversation.
So here is the passage:
John 8:2-11 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. 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, “Let any one of you who is without sin 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.” (italics mine)
There is a lot that could be discussed. Perhaps the first thing is whether or not this passage belongs in the Bible. Most modern English translations have some way of alerting the reader that these verses do not appear in many early manuscripts. I don’t want to belabor this post in a tedious discussion of textual criticism. At this point, I just want to accept the text as part of the collection of Jesus stories and teachings that at some point found its way into our scripture canon.
What I want to point out from this text is the warning about those with sin condemning another sinner. What were the sins of these Pharisees? The story doesn’t tell us. One thing we know is that they’re accusation against this woman served an ulterior motive. Other than that and our general knowledge of who the Pharisees were as a group, any speculation is mere conjecture.
But this is all beside the point. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is essentially, don’t you dare condemn if you yourself have sin. Do I think Jesus meant that the Pharisees had to be perfect before they could cast judgment? No! Jesus was not a legalist. My understanding is that Jesus is trying to make a point about grace and forgiveness. That is, we should treat others as we seek to be treated. It’s the Golden Rule (cf. Matt 7:12; Lk 6:31).
Rather than condemning her, Jesus forgives the woman and then tells her to go and sin no more. That is precisely what the woman needed to hear. I wonder how many people she went and shared her story of encountering grace with, how many new people she learned to be more merciful towards, how she treated someone she encountered engaging in sinful behavior.
This story undermines and simple black and white approach we might be tempted to take with those among the church we encounter in sinful living. It’s not that we want to endorse sin or treat sin in a casual manner. The conundrum comes from the fact that we are sinners too. So it is we who are without sin who should be doing the condemning. But how?
I have no easy answer because I wake up every morning knowing that I am sinner and in need of more grace than I ever fully realize. But here is something I have learned in ministry: Most Christians are not calloused towards sin. Instead, Most Christians engaged in sin are ashamed and would love help finding their way out of whatever sin(s) they are enslaved too without any further humiliation and guilt. They need grace and mercy, not judgment and condemnation. They need a friend, not a judge. They need a Christian who will walk along side of them in all the ugliness that sin is, being the tangible presence of God’s grace and truth so that they can be here the Lord say once again, “Neither do I condemn you….go and sin no more.”
And here is the caveat… Most people, Christian or not, need to know that you love them and that they can trust you before they will let you be that friend who walks along side of them in their struggle with sin. So, if you know of a Christian in your church who is struggling in sin, be prudent in how you handle. It takes a lot of time to build credibility but only a moment – one wrong word, one mistake – to destroy that credibility.
So I hope this post will help us all be ministers of reconciliation among our churches. In the meantime, how can we be better practitioners of such grace? How do we practice such grace without encouraging or tolerating sin?