Years ago, I had the privilege of baptizing a young man in prison. Once I was talking with him, and he was expressing his sorrow for the thing he had done. I told him, “Most of us have at some point in time done things that we could have gone to jail for. Then I told him of some things I did as a teenager. The only difference between him and me is that he got caught, and I never did. Every one of us have messed up in our lives--it's just that some of us get into more trouble for it than others. Jesus offers forgiveness for all. In today’s scripture we see that Jesus is not soft on sin, but He is big on grace!
In John 8:1-11 we find Jesus teaching in the Temple. Sometime during the night, the scribes and Pharisees had caught a woman in the act of adultery. In front of the crowds they brought her to Jesus. “’Teacher,’ they said to Jesus, ‘this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say (vv. 4-5)?’”[i] This put Jesus in quite an uncomfortable position. Jesus always taught about the grace and forgiveness of God, while the Pharisees and scribes always taught about God’s vengeance and anger. In truth, the Bible talks about both of these things. Sin does anger God. But God also desires to show mercy. So which of these two things should he show today? If Jesus showed too much mercy, the Pharisees would say he was violating the law which called for her execution. But if he gave her swift justice without mercy, he would violate his own teachings of grace. What would he say? Jesus wanted to show that He’s not soft on sin, but He is big on grace.
I know what I would have said, if I had been there: “Where’s the guy?” I mean, think about it—in order to catch the woman IN THE ACT of adultery, she would have had to be WITH somebody, right? So why had they dragged her away to put her to death, and let the man go? Pharisees prided themselves on their law-keeping, yet the verse they quoted in Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is discovered committing adultery, both he and the woman must die. In this way, you will purge Israel of such evil.” Could it be that the man was one of the Pharisees?
Well, I wasn’t there to challenge this, and that’s not what Jesus said. Instead, he carefully considered the binary choice they had presented to him: Should he condemn her to death or condone her sin? Often, when people want to trap you, they will present you with a binary choice. Often, when the devil wants to put you in a tough spot, he will make it seem like there are only two options. You may be in that same situation, when it comes to your temptation to judge others. You may feel like you have a choice between condoning or condemning. But Jesus listened to the Holy Spirit, presented a third option that neither condoned her sin, but didn’t condemn her either.
Without saying a word, he bent down and began writing in the dirt. What was he writing? Everybody gathered around to see. Now the Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote, but it does give us the effect of what Jesus wrote and said. See, Jesus had divine insight, and had access to God’s all-seeing eye. One preacher I heard suggested that Jesus was writing the names of all the girlfriends of the Pharisees—those names they didn’t want their wives to know. Then Jesus stood up and told them that they should keep the Law of Moses, which said that the woman should be stoned. (In this way he protected his integrity by maintaining the Law.) But, he added a word of mercy. “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” The Bible says that the scribes and Pharisees left one at a time, beginning with the oldest first. Why did the oldest leave first? They had probably had more time to sin, and had more of a list being written on the ground. Jesus had defeated those who tried to trap him, and saved the life of a girl who had been caught in her sin.
Today I ask you, which character in this story do you most identify with? Do you see yourself in the role of this woman, who had been caught in the very act of her sin? All of us at some time or another are guilty of breaking God's law. Some have committed this same sin that she committed. Others are guilty of different crimes. But all of us stand before God tainted with the stain of sin. When the devil accuses us, we are ashamed and want to hide our faces. But Jesus is the one who does not condemn. He always forgives those who turn to him for mercy.
Or maybe you identify the most with the pharisees and scribes in this story. Maybe you've caught someone in the act of committing a crime or a sin against you. Has someone you know betrayed you and now you want justice done? Then you need to learn the lesson of this story: There's a difference between justice and vengeance. God is a god of justice. And with God, being merciful is always better than being just. You see, Jesus is not soft on sin, but He is big on grace!
Or it could be that Jesus’ predicament reminds you of a situation you are in today. Maybe people go to you whenever big decisions need to be made. Maybe you sometimes feel trapped between what people think you should do, and what God wants you to do. If that's the case, then you need to pray that like Jesus, you might be given the wisdom of God to handle all the challenge of calling sin “sin” on the one hand, and yet reserving condemnation on the other hand, trusting that God is God and you are not.
You know, those Pharisees who so readily quoted from Deuteronomy 22:22 would have done well to read the whole chapter. They were quick to practice the law of condemnation, but Jesus was following God’s commands by practicing a higher law—the law of mercy. Verses 1-4 talk about the responsibility of a person who finds a wandering sheep or ox or goat that belongs to his neighbor. Maybe the animal has even collapsed on the road. The law of mercy says it’s your responsibility not to ignore that poor animal’s plight, but to take it under your protection and return it to its master. If God could care so much for a wandering beast, how much more does God care for an erring man or woman! Instead of condemning this woman, Jesus took her under his protection, showed her mercy, and restored her to God. Jesus did this not because he is soft on sin, but because he is big on grace!
Life constantly provides opportunities for failure and for success. Sometimes life presents you with temptations that you choose to follow to their sinful outcomes. Jesus speaks the same words he spoke to the woman who was caught in the act of adultery: "Neither do I [condemn you]. Go, and sin no more (John 8:11)." He doesn’t condemn; He doesn’t condone. Instead, He chooses to atone—and that act of divine mercy makes all the difference.