Ash Wednesday: When Scripture Attacks! Dealing with Difficult Verses and Journeying Through Lent
Reading: John 8:1-11
There are some pages in the bible that are rather hard to negotiate, you know, pages where you peek through fingers with one eye closed and skip over that part as quickly as you can. There are parts of scripture that it is hard to know what to do with. Parts of both the Old Testament and New Testament. But that’s not true with our Gospel reading right?
I’m going to guess, that many of you, most of you I hope have heard this particular passage before. It seems, at first glace a very easy and straightforward passage, right? We see Jesus and this encounter with a woman caught in the very act of adultery. The horrible Pharisees and scribes, trying to trap Jesus, b ring this woman to see Him and He spends some time scribbling in the dirt only to eventually say, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And the baddies go off one by one, leaving the woman alone with Jesus. Jesus shows mercy and sends her on her way. All is well and right. It will preach, won’t it? The hero wins the day, the evil plotters scuttle off and the lady leaves still very much alive. But within this passage is a rather troubling point that gives this little story in the middle of John a rather less easy feel, but perhaps a deeper meaning than the simple reading. You see, the charge that the Pharisees and scribes bring to Jesus, the fact that they were about to stone her for her unfaithfulness, is completely true to scripture. In Deuteronomy 22:22 it says this: ‘If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.’ Eek! That’s really difficult isn’t it? Is that really a loving God? You see, according to God’s law written in the Bible that is still there today. In fact, Jesus even leaves the possibility open doesn’t He. If you haven’t sinned, throw the first stone. Now we know from 5th chapter of Matthew, that Jesus isn’t here to get rid of the law, He is here to fulfil it. So what on earths going on here? How do we square this biblical circle or indeed any time we come across difficult passages that just seem to go against what we understand of a loving God?
The answer I think goes right to the heart of Lent, goes right the heart of sin and goes right to the heart of salvation. The first thing to say is we must avoid the easy option of evading scripture but do the hard work of wrestling with the text. As we all do almost subconsciously the Pharisees find it very easy to pin point the sin of the woman. But look at what Jesus does. He treats them all the same. He doesn’t deny that the woman, caught red-handed after all, hasn’t done anything wrong. Rather He reminds the Pharisees that they are as guilty of sin as anyone else. Jesus reminds them by that challenge, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
All of us sin, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. In lent, we are invited rather explicitly to remember that. What business do any of us have, in judging others? We are told time and again don’t judge, yet I bet you that we have all held someone in judgement today, maybe even in this service tonight, because they have done something we find difficult or whatever. We are not to judge people, but rather judge ourselves and seek repentance. The only person qualified to judge that woman was Jesus because He was the only person in that story who does not have sin.
Of course after the Pharisees and scribes drop their stones and leave, Jesus is left with the woman, who has committed a dreadful sin. Of that there is no doubt, she was caught red handed. The penalty of all sin, is death. But look what Jesus does. He stands and says ‘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.’ Now Jesus doesn’t negate the law, He fulfils it. How does He fulfil it? How does He have this amazing ability to forgive sin? Well, He carries all that sin on the cross which is where our journey of lent takes us. Salvation is given for all our sin, but it is at the cost of the cross. Right in this story at the beginning of lent we see the central part of our faith, the salvation of humanity, and we look towards the cost of that forgiveness at the foot of the cross.
Where does that leave us? The first thing is when you come across scripture that is difficult, remember that the context matters and remember to always read scripture through the lens of salvation earned through copious grace and mercy. When you come across some of the difficult passages in the Old Testament in particular, we have to remember that Jesus, who fulfils the law, saves us from them too. As we hear in John 3:17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. And He saves us from our sin through His death on the cross.
Secondly, this lent lets strive to not judge others but to bring ourselves before Jesus, even though we feel we have failed or messed up or stuffed up, even when people are wanting to stone us by their flawed judgement, and come with a heart turned to repentance and looking at our own failings. But we do so with the knowledge that we are redeemed and that Jesus stands near us to say to us as we repent “neither do I condemn you.” Holding us with pierced hands of love.
Finally, what this should lead us to is learning slowly in our own way to be more like Jesus. More able to live good lives, more able to forgive others, more able to not judge, more able to love everyone. Don’t worry if you are not perfect, if you have struggled again and again and again. This is a Lenten journey that we go on for our whole lives, becoming more who we are created to be, becoming more Christlike. So journey well in lent. Allow yourself to go on that redeeming journey. Be kind to yourself as you confront those things that the Lord wants to confront and always remember, that you ultimately walk with Jesus to His cross giving thanks through the tears. Amen.