By Elizabeth Foss
Have you ever had your sins held up to the light by a crowd of righteous believers in your community? I have.
Nothing tests one’s faith in “Church” so much as the condemnation of the accusers. No experience of faith is so vulnerable and lonely as the one that leaves us alone in front of the people gathering stones.
We are all sinners. Some of us hold our sins close and they remain a secret, silent shame. Some of us are exposed and held up by the righteous crowd, embarrassed both privately and publicly. Either way, we crouch and let tears fall into the dust and wonder if this is the day we die, alone and condemned.
Jesus meets us there in the alienation. He comes alongside and show us two things: true justice and true mercy. Throughout the gospels, Jesus calls on the Pharisees to take a careful look at the stones they hold in their clenched fists. He forces them to look at the way they misuse the law. In this story, they walk away because they are not sinless. Of course, every justice system would collapse if every judge must be sinless. Jesus’ point is not to require that we be perfect before we rebuke another for her sin. It is that we must approach each other with a gracious spirit. When we rebuke, we must truly speak in love (see Ephesians 4:15) The message’s focus isn’t supposed to be the rebuke; it’s supposed to be the grace Jesus offers when we repent and embrace the gospel. We aren’t supposed to wound the sinner. We are supposed to turn her gaze towards the Healer.
Jesus is gracious when the woman’s whole world is just plain mean. Jesus heals where everyone else was going to wound her to her death. Jesus calls on us to be better than the accusers. He calls on us to rebuke with compassionate grace, preserving the dignity of the accused. That woman was delivered from the accusing crowd, the crowd that was actually just using her to use the law to rid themselves of Jesus.
Why did He threaten them so? Because Jesus required more of them than just the letter of the law. He pushed them to be better human beings.
She stood alone in the dirt, her tears marking her face with the dust and the grime of her sinfulness. She felt the full weight of her sin and she felt the additional burden of bearing the crowd’s unjust cruelty.
They all walked away.
Alone with only Jesus, she heard Him say, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
He didn’t mean her sins were not grave. He didn’t mean it didn’t matter that she’d committed adultery. He meant He had come so that she would experience grace, and that experience—not the fear of embarrassment or alienation or even stoning by a crowd—would establish true righteousness in her life. Her disobedience would not kill her, and her obedience could not save her. His grace would rescue her—from her shame and from her death.
Jesus lifts Himself above the law. He has made it clear that He can hate sin and save the sinner at the same time. Further, He expects us to extend such grace to one another. He wants us to be holy by being gracious. He wants us to know and understand His grace in our lives and so to make it known in the lives of the Church. He stands with us in the dust. We are both the adulteress and her accuser.
What will we do? Will we be cruel hypocrites who hurl stones? Or will we pursue justice and mercy that flows from a gracious spirit? Will we cower in our shame and fail to meet the gaze of our Redeemer, or will we hear His words of restoration and believe they are true?
About the Author:
Elizabeth Foss is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She’s happy curled up with a good book or tinkering with a turn of phrase. Long walks make her heart sing and occasionally cause her to break into a run. Though she travels frequently, it’s usually only between northern Virginia and her beloved Charlottesville, or to the weekend’s dictated soccer or dance destination. She is the founder of www.takeupandread.org