No condemnation

This past weekend, our pastor, in the midst of a sermon series on love, preached on John 8:2-11, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  Scholars argue whether the story is authentic, since the oldest Greek manuscripts of the gospel lack it, while other manuscripts place it elsewhere.  Many agree, however, that the story is compelling, and sounds indeed like something Jesus would have done.

For my part, as I listened to the sermon, I found my mind going back to Paul’s words on proper judgment within the church (which I wrote about in the previous two posts).  The story of Jesus provides a living example of judgment without condemnation, holiness suffused with grace.

One morning, as Jesus is teaching in the temple, the scribes and Pharisees drag before him a woman supposedly caught in the very act of adultery.  That suggests that the man and woman were discovered together, and by the law of Moses, both should be stoned to death (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22).  But for some reason, only the woman is brought to Jesus.

Something is obviously amiss, and the text makes clear that it’s a set-up.  The scribes and Pharisees are less concerned about a violation of the Law than they are with finding a way to lure Jesus into a trap.  So they play what they think is their trump card, standing the woman before him, and saying in the hearing of the crowd, “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this.  What do you say?” (John 8:5, CEB).

But he seems to ignore them, stooping down to doodle with his finger on the ground.  Only after they badger him for a response does he stand back up and say, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone” (vs. 7).  He returns to his doodling, and one by one, the woman’s erstwhile accusers slink away, until only she and Jesus are left.  The story ends with this exchange (vss. 10-11):

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they?  Is there no one to condemn you?”  She said, “No one, sir.”  Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”

Whatever the historical truth may be about this story, I like to think that after this encounter with Jesus, she found the courage to do the right thing.

“Neither do I condemn you.”  The word “condemn” is closely related to the word “judge”: quite literally, it means “to judge against.”  “Judge” is a broader word that suggests making a decision between alternatives: right or wrong, sheep or goat.

It’s clear that Jesus doesn’t condone the woman’s actions.  He stands in judgment of her sin, but without hypocrisy.  He doesn’t accept it, explain it away, or pretend it never happened.  And he tells her unequivocally to stop.

But his judgment is not condemnation, not judgment against, neither impersonal nor from a distance.  It is truth without arrogance, spoken by one who stands alongside, one who both makes a moral demand and gives the necessary moral empowerment.

Paul insists that in the pursuit of holiness, God’s people must be subject to one another’s judgment.  But that’s not license for hypocritical, arms-length condemnation.  Against must give way to with and for: even in the exercise of judgment, we stand with each other, for the common good, and for the glory of God and his kingdom.