When I begin to think about what Jesus was actually like, my thoughts almost immediately turn to the story found in John 8.1-11. It appears to me that this story has presented problems for the church since it happened. While most translations include the story, there are often notes suggesting that the story doesn’t appear in some early manuscripts or appears in some other place. The general feeling is that this is a true story about Jesus but the nature of the story presented some serious problems.
We lose some of the impact of the story because of the moral climate we live in. Adultery is still a serious issue–but there are so many more moral and ethical issues that people today would consider much more serious. Even within the church, there have been cases of high profile church leaders being caught in adulterous relationships who feel justified in continuing on in ministry.
But in Jesus’ day, there were few moral issues more serious than adultery. For a variety of cultural and religious reasons, the Jewish faith considered the marriage bond sacred–and breaking that bond was an offense requiring the death penalty (Leviticus 20.10). For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, this provided a perfect opportunity for them to discredit Jesus.
I think they knew enough about Jesus and his teaching that they were aware he wouldn’t want to have the woman killed. But if he took as stand against the Law, they could prosecute him for breaking the law. If he went along with them and agreed to the execution, that would destroy his reputation among the people.
What didn’t happen in the story is as important as what did happen. At the end of the story, the woman walks away, alive and uncondemned. Her accusers slink away, leaving behind their condemnation and stones. The woman has not confessed, hasn’t begged for forgiveness, hasn’t apologized but she has been forgiven–at least that would be my understanding of Jesus words in John 8.11, ” … neither do I condemn you…” (NIV)
The woman, whose guilt doesn’t seem to be questioned, walks away freely. The religious leaders, whose official guilt isn’t supposed to exist, slink away in embarrassment. Is that any way for a story dealing with religion and morals and all that to end? No wonder the early church had such a hard time with the story–it seems to allow people to get away with their sins, something that was unheard of in that day. Religious people want sins to be condemned–and that often means that we want sinners condemned.
But here is Jesus basically ignoring sin. He focus on the people in the story, wanting all involved to make changes. He gets the religious leaders to make a change–they lose their desire to execute this woman. He encourages the woman to change her ways but when he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” he doesn’t even give her an “or else”.
My guess is that the story ran into trouble because of the fact that it seems to treat sin lightly. But the point of the story isn’t that Jesus was being soft on sin. The point of the story is that Jesus is showing us that for him, people are always more than their sins and helping them is more important than punishing their sin. Jesus knows how serious sin is–he came into the world to be a solution for the problem of sin and was willing to die to solve the problem of sin. But because he had the solution for sin taken care of, he is free to focus on people and helping them in love and grace.
Maybe we in the church would be better off if we followed this pattern and began to ignore sin so that we could focus on really providing people with the love and grace of God. If we accept the reality that Jesus dealt with the seriousness of sin with his death and resurrection, we can forget about dealing with sin and deal with real people who have a real need to understanding the love and grace of God that Jesus shows so powerfully here.
This desire to love people, to look beyond their sins, to love them in spite of their sins–this provides us with powerful insight into what Jesus was like and an equally powerful insight into what we need to be like.
May the peace of God be with you.