A sermon delivered at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON) on February 9, 2014.
Text: John 8:1-11
Today’s sermon is the final in our “Creating Healthy Boundaries” series. To be honest, I feel completely unqualified to speak about “Letting Others Be Wrong” for three reasons:
One, at my high school dinner graduation I was named “most likely to be a world famous lawyer who has everyone in tears because he never backs down from an argument”. How could I argue with that?
Two, there are books written by people who are far more intelligent than I addressing this topic; people with degrees in psychiatry, organizational behavior, and business administration. This means I cannot offer you a five-point plan on how to let others be wrong.
Three, I can’t resist beating Ian in our recent debates at youth group.
All I can do is turn to the Scriptures with the expectation that God will speak to us if we have ears to hear.
Before we turn to our Gospel reading for today, I should be clear that when I talk about letting others be wrong, I’m not talking about letting your 3-year-old be wrong when she says “God lives in my heart and God eats the food in my tummy”. That is a theological error I will have to let slide for the time being.
And I am not talking about letting your wife be wrong when you are arguing about what year a particular movie came out. Isn’t that why we have Google and Wikipedia?
I am talking about lettings others be wrong when the other is a loved one, a family member, a fellow church-members, who is doing something that is clearly wrong, something that is hurting others, themselves, or yourself.
Should we even let others be wrong in a situation like this?
John 8:1-11 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. The story is interesting for a number of different reasons: why is this story not found in the earliest manuscripts? How come the man was not brought before Jesus? Today, I want to focus on Jesus’ response to scribes and Pharisees.
The scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who had been caught in adultery.
She was not caught previously and then brought at a convenient time to test Jesus.
She was caught in the very act.
Do you see what has happened?
This woman probably did not come willingly. After all, who would go willingly, knowing that the penalty for adultery is death by stoning?
This woman probably did not have time to get dressed and make herself presentable. She stands before the mostly male crowd naked…embarrassed…ashamed…guilty.
The crowd is hostile, hurling insults, calling names, armed with stones, ready to kill this woman, to make an example of her. After all, she is guilty of adultery, guilty of breaking Torah – caught in the very act.
Now stop for a moment and place yourself in this scene in its first century context.
Of course, our inclination is to automatically place ourselves next to Jesus, after all, who wouldn’t side with Jesus?
But let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Here is a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. She is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
What insults would I be yelling at her?
What names would I call her?
What would I be holding in my hand?
This is an uncomfortable exercise. And yet, it is directly translatable to situations we often face today. While we may not throw physical stones, often our response to people who’ve been caught doing something wrong is to throw insults, gossip and names. After all, who among us doesn’t relish the opportunity to be right, to stand above others in condemnation? Judging others is easy, especially when they are wrong.
Like the crowd in today’s Gospel reading, we are speaking the truth! This woman is guilty and therefore everything we say or do is completely justified.
But listen to Jesus’ response.
His initial response is silence.
He says absolutely nothing to the yelling crowd and insistent questioning.
Rather, he bends down and writes on the ground. What a strange response, especially since we don’t know what he wrote.
When Jesus does finally speak, he tells the crowd that anyone who is without sin is actually permitted to throw a stone at her.
Do you hear what Jesus is saying?
He is calling everyone in the crowd a hypocrite.
He is telling them that they are so focused on this woman’s sin that they are forgetting their own. In their moral indignation, they refuse to see that they too stand guilty.
He is telling them that in spite of their belief that they’ve taken the moral high ground, they are equally guilty, if not more so, than the woman.
Jesus is protecting the woman by charging the crowd with sin.
Then Jesus continues to silently write on the ground.
You can hear the hush come over the crowd. You can hear the sound of rocks being dropped to the ground. You can hear the sound of sandals shuffling on sand as the crowd disperses.
With everyone gone, Jesus stands up and questions the woman – where are they? Has no one condemned you?
Do you hear the way he responds to her?
Without moral qualm or worrying about social repressions, Jesus speaks with a woman, a woman guilty of adultery.
Yet, he does not wait for the crowds to leave so that he can condemn her.
Rather, Jesus addresses her as a person, someone worthy of respect. His initial response is to ask questions, giving the woman, previously silenced by the crowds, an opportunity to speak.
After her response, Jesus tells her that he does not condemn her.
Do you hear what Jesus is saying about himself?
Jesus is identifying himself as the one without sin.
Jesus is identifying himself as the only one who is able to legitimately condemn her, the only one who could throw stones at her.
And yet, in spite of her guilt, Jesus forgives her. He extends mercy to her. He sets her free from her guilt. He refuses to throw a stone.
With this word of forgiveness, Jesus tells her to sin no more.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that this woman, let alone of those in the crowd, could follow Jesus’ command.
And yet, would Jesus’ response be any different if she was caught again?
Would Jesus’ response be any different if we were caught again?
In the end, Jesus neither condones nor condemns the woman’s actions.
Rather, Jesus speaks the truth in love.
The crowd was ready and willing to speak the truth, but they did so without love.
The wielded the truth as a weapon, ready and willing to use the truth to destroy somebody.
In the rush to take the moral high ground, it is easy to focus on how the other is wrong; it is easy to speak the truth without love.
To speak the truth without love is to make myself the judge over another person, to put truth before the relationship, to harshly unjustly condemn.
But what about the inverse, – speaking love without truth?
Letting others be wrong does not mean that we ignore the wrong being done.
To speak love without truth enables the other person’s behavior and justifies their wrong actions. It masks the hurt caused and permits it to continue.
Is this really love or is this really fear pretending to be love? Fear of offending the other. Fear that the relationship might end.
To speak love without truth is to allow fear to have the final say. It is a refusal to acknowledge that healthy relationships are built on trust and the ability to be open and honest with the other.
Whether it is between spouses, parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers, fellow church members, relationships can be difficult.
They become all the more difficult when a loved one has done or is doing something wrong.
So what do we do? Do we jump to judgment? Do we accept the behavior?
No. We speak the truth in love.
Speaking the truth in love is difficult.
There is no 5 step-strategy to follow.
Speaking the truth in love requires that I refuse to condone or condemn.
Speaking the truth in loves requires that I recognize the plank in my own eye, that I confess our own guilt and receive Christ’s mercy for myself.
Speaking the truth in love requires that I address the other as a person worthy of love and that I give them the opportunity to respond.
Speaking the truth in loves requires that I follow the example of the one who is the embodiment of both truth and love.
May we drop our stones.
May we be slow to speak and quick to listen.
May we accept the grace and forgiveness that Christ extends to us.
May we neither condone nor condemn those who are wrong, and may we always speak the truth in love.