Those of us who live, or work, with teenagers may have received the challenge to, “Get real”. I suggest that this is a contemporary way of expressing the challenge issued by Jesus to the scribes and the Pharisees in John chapter eight, verse seven, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…’ In this article, I explore how these words and the context in which Jesus said them, may help us in responding to people and some of the contemporary issues of our day.
The account about the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8: 2-11, is presented in the context of the preceding chapter of a growing conflict between the scribes and the Pharisees with Jesus. This incident is set up to test Jesus, with the life of a woman at stake. If Jesus upholds the Mosaic Law on adultery with its penalty of death by stoning, he will be in conflict with Roman law, under which adultery was not a capital offence. If Jesus does not uphold the Mosaic Law, then the scribes and Pharisees can discredit him and his teaching, in front of the predominantly Jewish audience. How will Jesus respond pastorally, with justice and with integrity?
‘Now what do you say?’ is their question. The response of Jesus is to bend down and write with his finger on the ground. Is he playing for time? Was he not interested in the question? He must have known it was a trap aimed at discrediting him. We’re told that they ‘kept on questioning him’. Eventually, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
With this response, Jesus transformed the argument from a legal one about penalty to a personal one about the reality of human living before God. If you have not sinned, if you have not fallen short, before God in some way, then you throw the first stone. ‘And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.’ Jesus was not accusatory towards the potential stone throwers; he bent down and left them each to work out the personal implications of his words. Not surprisingly, elders first, they all gradually melt away.
What are the implications of this event for those of us who seek to be Christ-like amidst the opportunities, demands and challenges of our contemporary cultures and world? How might reflecting on this event help to shape our responses to contemporary issues, for example, the changes to social security, sexuality, immigration, and relations with those of other faiths?
Jesus suggests that if we are tempted to pass judgement on others for their shortcomings, we should first ‘get real’ about ourselves. What are the ways in which you personally fall short, or are tempted to fall short, of the standards you, or the Christian faith, seems to expect? Let’s ‘get real’ and recognise that life is complicated and that God has made and enabled us as human beings to be wonderfully complex and diverse.
Let’s recognise that in this materialistic society, facing the challenge of austerity, we, or many people, spend more than our income and struggle to live within our means. Why then should those on social security face reductions in their modest incomes, when many rich people set up companies or pay accountants to minimise or avoid paying tax, not to mention certain global companies? On another occasion when the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, they asked a question about paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22, also in Mark and Luke).
Let’s recognise the power of sexual desire in our lives and consider the times when we looked at or related to another person, primarily out of that desire. The assumption made in the passage is that the woman did commit adultery, but no information is provided about the man involved. Jesus showed no inclination to judge or condemn. His concern is for the future. In our highly sexualised society, with high levels of what some would call relational chaos, does this suggest that our concern should be with the future and with calling ourselves and others to relational and sexual faithfulness, rather than dwelling on the past. How does this inform our response to same sex civil partnerships and the prospect of ‘gay marriage’?
Let’s recognise that there are those we know who have emigrated to other countries for a better life for themselves and their families. Did we try to deny them the right to choose where to live in the world? Probably not, so why should people be prevented from coming to live in the UK for a better life for themselves and their families?
Let’s recognise our shortcomings in living our faith, and the sins of Christianity through history, and how Christianity has been mis-used to support other agendas. Let’s resist the temptation to pass judgement on the worst shortcomings in the practices of a tiny minority in another faith, or how their faith is mis-used to support other agendas. Without denying the shortcomings of the people of any faith, let’s focus on the good common ground among people of faith and celebrate ordinary and amazing contributions that people of faith make to our society and world.
Other similar teaching from Jesus is that of ‘the log and the speck’ (Luke 6: 41-42). ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’ If we adopt this approach of being prepared to see our own ‘log’ and face our own shortcomings and sins, we may be better able to live out both the compassionate justice of Christ on the one hand and the challenge of Christ, from the position of writing on the floor, to those who hold power and pass judgement on others.