Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who Would Throw the First Stone?

John 8:7 Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

When I heard the tragic story of the young man and woman, accused of adultery in a Taliban controlled region of Afghanistan, and stoned to death for their crime by members of this terrorist group, the scripture quoted above came immediately to mind. Jesus is teaching to the crowds in the temple when the Pharisees, eager to trip him up on some aspect of the law, bring a woman, caught in the act of adultery, before him. The Jewish law in Jesus' day demanded the punishment of death by stoning for an adulterer just as today's Sharia law demands when followed to the strictest letter by fundamentalist groups like the Taliban. The act of adultery, moreover, was forbidden not by a random law; it was one of the Ten Commandments. Pharisees, who followed the law unwaveringly, confronted Jesus with God's own words given to Moses on Mt. Sinai generations ago.

Repeatedly in the New Testament, we read that Jesus spoke "with great authority". This, certainly, must have been one of those moments. The Pharisees were an elite and powerful group in the Jewish community, more accustomed to chastising others than being chastised. When Jesus addressed them concerning the state of their own sinfulness, I can envision their initial shock, their instantaneous denial and, then, slowly but surely, under the penetrating gaze of this rabbi, they, one by one, acknowledged within their hearts the ponderous weight of their own sinful natures. The taut grips on the terrified woman's arm loosen then fall away. Stones roll from open palms and clatter along the temple floor. One by one, beginning with the elders, the Pharisees retreat without protest, abandoning the woman that, just moments before, they were intent upon killing. She now stands alone, still frightened and trembling, before Jesus.

(John 8:10-11) Jesus . . . said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

What a paradoxical moment it must have been for this woman! She was at once absolved of her alleged crime yet given the impossible command to never commit another sin. How, she must have wondered, if this is something even Pharisees could not accomplish, could she, a simple woman, avoid sin for the rest of her days? Little does she know that the very man who showed mercy toward her would be the one to die on a cross for her every sin, large and small, covering them with his innocent blood "shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Book of Common Prayer)

In Matthew 5:17, Jesus declares he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Following the letter of the law without the love of God first in our hearts prevents them from showing mercy and forgiveness to friend and foe alike as Jesus would have us do. If we love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves, we fulfill God's hope for us. Do we do this faithfully? I dare say that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Yet, our precious Lord is there to comfort us, encourage us, and, most importantly, forgive us when we ask Him in true repentance and humility. He is our Savior, our friend, and only advocate with the Father.

For the unfortunate couple in Afghanistan, there was no advocate, no voice of mercy in the crowd of over 100 men who brutally stoned them. Death was inevitable. It always is when the law is all you know.

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