Choosing Life - John 8:2-12

We like to talk about life. We celebrate pregnancy, the birth of babies, kittens, puppies, and recovery from accidents, illness, and surgery. We celebrate the rebirth of leaves on the trees, the sprouting of flowers, and the fresh green after the drab of winter. We hold parties and bake cakes to celebrate birthdays, marking off the progression of years in celebration of life. There are, however, aspects of life we fail to celebrate. Where life does not progress as we would prefer, we tend to focus elsewhere.
Jesus came preaching a gospel of life. He spoke of an abundant life. He spoke of a life for the ages, stretching into eternity. He spoke of life with the Father. He brought attention to life with the resurrection of Lazarus and bringing others back to life from death or certain death due to illness. Jesus addressed life in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and restoring the broken. He also intervened in using legal recourses to end life.
It was a test. They were seeking an excuse to accuse Jesus before the multitudes who followed him and listened to his teaching. They wanted to discredit him and portray him as undermining as one who did not obey God's instructions or as one who was not nearly as compassionate as he displayed himself to be. They were trying to force him into a corner, press his buttons, and discredit him in the eyes of those who hung onto his words.
They found a woman in a vulnerable position. She had been caught in the act of adultery. Though the law was normally not applied, she could be formally accused and stoned by the witnesses to her failure. Everyone knew the rules. Everyone knew her life was forfeit before the rules of the Mosaic code. They also knew that in practice, a divorce was the more common consequence of adultery than was stoning in accord with the Mosaic code.
If Jesus were truly a prophet after the tradition of Moses, he would not be able to counter Moses' instructions. If he did, he could be accused of going against God and considering himself a greater authority than Moses, which would not play well before the crowds. On the other hand, if Jesus were to call for her death by stoning, he would come across as lacking compassion and being harsh in her treatment. It was a difficult situation for Jesus to answer, as there were pitfalls in either direction.
Jesus' answer, however, did not focus on the woman who had been trapped and thrown at his feet as little more than a prop for their plot against him. While at first he did not answer, he eventually stood to address the men confronting him.
There were many undercurrents in his words. They had brought a woman before him, but not the man with whom she had been caught. They had brought her as a prop, not as a person of worth. They had brought her with ulterior motives, brushing aside any sense of her value to God and society. Their actions had dehumanized her as nothing more than a tool to be used for their purposes.
These men were not concerned with her. They were not worried over what might happen to her or what had led her to the current accusation of adultery. One wonders if one of their own members was party to her infidelity, having entrapped her simply as an excuse to entrap Jesus. As far as they were concerned, her personhood and value were already negligible. They had discounted the worth of her life before throwing her down at Jesus' feet. She had been written off and was of no importance to them beyond being a useful prop. That is the issue that Jesus actively addressed.
He went about it in a strange way. He did not speak to her, at first. He asked her no questions in regard to circumstances that had led to her entrapment and the accusations that had brought her before him. He did not try to qualify or investigate anyone's actions, character, or extenuating circumstances. On all of that, he simply remained silent. Instead of addressing her as one the men had dehumanized, he responded to the men in regard to the quality and character of their own actions.
He made her accusers, his accusers, equal to the woman they accused. He did not bring her up to their level. He brought them down to hers. He made them all equal before God, before the crowd around them, and before himself. He gave them a task, a responsibility which forced them to equate the character of their own actions to the accusation they leveled at this woman they were ready to discard.
Whichever one of you is without sin, you cast the first stone.”
That was a more complicated statement than we might recognize. The first two stones cast in the act of stoning had to be thrown by different witnesses to the crime being punished. In the case of adultery, that meant that for this woman to be stoned witnesses had to participate in her stoning. Jesus mandated that among those witnesses those who had no guilt should be the ones to step forward.
Like as not, all of those who came to accuse Jesus were involved in the plot behind Jesus' accusation and her adultery. Jesus went further than that, however. He mandated that of those witnesses before him, only one who had not sinned should be considered worthy of casting that first stone. Jesus required that they reflect on the character of their own actions as a prerequisite to carrying out her death. On the other hand, any one of them who stepped forward would be declaring his life to be perfect, sinless, completely above reproach. That would be a blasphemous declaration.
In the face of certain death as the consequence of her actions, Jesus turned the attention of the crowd to the character and actions of her accusers. It was a redirection of focus from death toward life. None of them had standing to accuse her without condemning themselves. That was Jesus' point.
We can find excuses to condemn others much more easily than we seek reasons to excuse them. Like those scribes and Pharisees, we can be quick to condemn people for failing to measure up to moral and ethical standards we set before ourselves or consider God having set before us. We know that we are guilty of our own indiscretions, failures, and shortcomings. Rather than focus on fixing what is wrong in ourselves, we try to categorize others in some other category.
We dehumanize others or attempt to portray ourselves as somehow superior. We make our own lives out as having greater value than the lives of others. The excuses and rationale can be varied, but the effect is the same. We are not criminals. We are not adulterers. We are not addicts, We are church members. We tithe our incomes. We have worked hard. We contribute to society. We are better than they are. We are more deserving of life.
Jesus simply did not accept that way of thinking. He cast a higher standard for valuing life. He allowed not only this woman to walk away without his condemnation. He let her accusers do the same. He could have condemned them publicly for plotting against her life. He could have called for a death sentence upon them. Instead, Jesus chose life. Life is greater and more important than a death penalty. Jesus refused to dehumanize them, even when that is what they were doing. If we are truly going to celebrate life with Jesus, we must celebrate all life, refusing the trap of dehumanizing others.

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin 


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