(John 8: 2-11)
Last week, you will recall, I read as part of our sermon an excerpt from this book: The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs, editor of Esquire magazine. The book’s subtitle explains it all: one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible. The “immersion journalist” in A.J. asked himself: what would it look like if someone actually tried to follow all 613 laws in the Bible literally, no exceptions? And so for an entire year, A.J. took on this quest. He stopped shaving and cutting his hair. He removed shellfish and pork from his diet. He embarrassed his family and put himself in some very awkward situations. And he chronicled it all for our amusement, and perhaps even for our learning too.
Last week I read a bit in the book’s introduction about the challenge of not shaving for a year – per Leviticus 19:27. This week, it’s a bit of a heavier topic he delves into; that of stoning. There are certain instances in the Hebrew Bible that allow for someone to be punished by stoning. Murder was one, but some others, quite frankly, are a little harder to wrap our heads around. One could be stoned for working on the sabbath, as the scripture Grace read describes. Or approaching near Mount Sinai when the presence of God was near, or blaspheming the name of the Lord, or idolatry. All of these were things someone could be stoned for.
So here was A.J.’s dilemma in his year-long quest to live biblically – how does one in today’s world observe the commandment for stoning? And, more importantly, what happens for all of us at the intersection of justice and mercy? Listen to A.J.’s tale:
Day 62. Time for me to tackle the next item on my list of Most Perplexing Laws: capital punishment. The most common punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone somehow. But how? This is not exactly an accepted practice in our world today, and I’m still struggling with how it was an accepted practice back then. But I think about this for awhile and eventually figure out a loophole: The Bible does not specify the size of the stones. So I will use little pebbles.
A few days ago, I gathered a handful of small white pebbles from Central Park. Now all I needed were some victims. I decided to start with Sabbath breakers. That’s easy enough to find in this workaholic city of New York. I noticed that a potbellied guy at the Avis down our block had worked on both Saturday and Sunday. So no matter what, he’s a Sabbath breaker.
Here’s the thing: Even with small pebbles, it is surprisingly hard to stone people.
My plan had been to walk nonchalantly past the Sabbath violator and chuck the pebbles at the small of his back. But after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed.
My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history – I said, “I’m sorry,” and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and I apologized again. It was highly unsatisfying.
Today I get another chance. I am resting in a small public park on the Upper West Side, the kind where you see retirees eating tuna sandwiches on benches.
“Hey,” a gruff voice to my side says, “you’re dressed funny-looking.”
I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-seventies. He is tall and thin and is wearing one of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the forties. He says I’m dressed funny-looking because, in my quest to live biblically I am wearing garb in line with biblical commandments and cultural norms – so no mixed fibers, no shoes; and of course the mangy-looking beard. So he’s right, I am dressed funny-looking.
“You’re dressed funny,” he snarls. “Why are you dressed so funny?”
I reply. “ I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The Ten Commandments, caring for orphans and widows, stoning Sabbath-breakers and adulterers . . .”
He stops me there. “You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer,” he says.
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“Well, yeah, if I could, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket. “Oh, I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.” I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then flinging it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I had not expected this grizzled old man to make the first move. I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
We stare at each other. My pulse has doubled. Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.
I think I’m done with this stoning thing for now. Forget the stonee. It is just as dangerous for the one doing the throwing.
Now I have a lot of favorite stories in this book, but I think this is my “most favorite.” I mean, you got to love a funny-dressed guy dropping pebbles on the shoes of Sabbath-breakers, an old man quoting from The Honeymooners, “I’ll punch you right in the kisser….”
It is a funny story, but as much in this book, there’s something more going on here. We talked last week about how A.J. is not writing this book to be sermon fodder or Sunday school material; he’s not aiming to be theological. Although the truth is he cannot help but be. He kind of stumbles into it. Because when we dig beneath the surface, we see something else taking place: we see a man in conflict at the intersection of justice and mercy.
On one hand A.J. is trying to live biblically and carry out – at least as far as the Old Testament goes – a notion of justice. Of consequences for wrong actions. But on the other hand, it takes every bit of willpower he can muster – even when it’s nothing more than “accidentally” dropping a pebble on a shoe; the most polite stoning in history, as he puts it. This inclination towards mercy butts right up against the commandment for justice. And I don’t think his discomfort here lies solely with him.
I mean, we all want wrongs made right, we all want the brokenness of the world to be made whole; but do we understand that it takes both justice and mercy to make that happen? It is hard for us to see that; and perhaps the reason is because, at some level, we are painfully aware of our own brokenness, our own need for healing. Justice and mercy we struggle to embrace ourselves, which means we’re less likely to grant it to others.
And I think that’s kind of what Jesus is trying to get across to those people in our other scripture today, is it not? These men bring a woman to him, accusing her of the same brokenness the man in A.J.’s story had openly acknowledged. But it’s different here, because she’s a woman, and women had little voice or power of their own in Jesus’ time. She is as vulnerable as vulnerable gets.
The men bring her to Jesus and take great joy in pointing out that the punishment for her behavior was a good stoning. That’s what the law allows. That’s what she deserves. They bring her to Jesus, not only with wrath-filled righteousness in their hearts, but a deep loathing for both this woman and this man from Nazareth, who was everything they were not; the embodiment of that intersection of justice and mercy.
They bring her to Jesus. And what does Jesus do? He bends down and starts drawing in the sand with his finger.
Now please tell me, in the many times I assume you’ve heard this story, please tell me at some point you’ve asked yourself, “What was Jesus doing drawing in the sand?” I mean, honestly, what was so important in that incredibly tense and volatile moment, with a woman’s life hanging in the balance, that Jesus would be down doodling in the dirt?
Anna Carter Florence, our Gilchrist Speaker this past April, talked about this passage in her combined Sunday school class that morning; and how she was so intrigued by it that, one afternoon at the seminary where she taught, she grabbed a bunch of students and took them outside and literally “blocked out” the scripture,” the same way the director of a play blocks a scene on stage. Just to see if that helped make any sense.
A couple of weeks ago, I crowdsourced on my Facebook page, asking people what they thought Jesus was drawing in the sand. 65 people chimed in. Some said Jesus was writing the names of the people standing there with stones in their hands, or writing their sins. Others thought Jesus was just doodling there, maybe as a way to break the tension or bide some time. Still others thought Jesus was removing himself from the circle – literally stooping down – so the accusers had no one to look at but the woman and each other – that’s actually what Dr. Florence concluded. One person surmised that Jesus was down there drawing the Christian fish symbol.
Which, though unlikely, could be true – we, of course, have no way of knowing exactly what he was doing. All we can do is imagine; all we can do is surmise what makes sense to us. Which is why in light of our other passage, and through the lens of A.J.’s story, I find myself wondering this:
I find myself wondering if Jesus was simply running his fingers through the sand – feeling the coarse roughness of those thousands and thousands of tiny grains of matter slipping through his fingers and falling to the ground. Feeling that and thinking to himself that, at some point in the distant past, those tiny grains of sand might have been part of something bigger than itself: part of a stone. A stone, perhaps, just like the ones those men were now clutching; a stone that had been thrown countless times before and shattered into sand over thousands of years and thousands of throws; shattered over accused and broken bodies, the victims of a perverted sense of justice far, far removed from the intersection with mercy.
I find myself thinking about Jesus down there, running his fingers through the sand and asking, How many more stones? How many more will be shattered into sand like this? How many more will be cast and used to punish, to condemn, to kill, to make a statement, to send a message – all in the name of a loving and merciful God? How many more stones?
And I imagine Jesus answering his own unspoken question as he took one final stroke of his finger in the dirt, and looked up to the accusers, and spoke nine beautiful words found at the very heart of the intersection of justice and mercy: Let the one without sin cast the first stone.
Don’t you see? Jesus showed those Pharisees that the real target of the stones they were clutching was not the woman at their feet. It was themselves. He helped them understand – painfully and beautifully so – that God’s grace and love always trumps judgment and condemnation. And thanks be to God for that! Because it’s never just “the other” who is the recipient of that grace. It is every one of us.
Did you know, my friends, that grace has a sound? It is a beautiful sound! It is the sound of bony fingers popping as they release their grip on stones they’d been holding tightly for far too long. It is the sound those stones make as, one by one, they hit the ground; a soft thud; never to become sand, at least not this day. And it is the sound of Jesus’ own voice, telling a woman that her accusers had left, because they had been changed; and that she, too, had as well.
Sisters and brothers, we stand at the intersection. We stand there both as the accused and as the ones clutching the stones. And Jesus calls us to let go of our stones and grab hold of grace. Grab it and hold on to it for dear life! Because it’s been far too long that we’ve judged not only others but judged ourselves. We’ve put ourselves on trial and issued our own sentence – of unmitigated guilt, irreparable regret, permanent brokenness.
Grace simply will not let us do that anymore. The healing begins here, and then moves out. Grace releases us from the burden of our sin and places it in the hands of the One willing to bear it for us – the hands of a mighty God, who never throws stones, but only loves. So when Jesus says to us, “Go and sin no more,” it is not a threat. It’s an invitation. A promise. And we can bet all the sand in the world on it.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.