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Monday, March 11, 2013

A Lenten Story of Mercy & Purity - The Adulterous Woman. Homily For 3.17.13 from John 8:1-11 for the Firth Sunday of Lent

Homily for 3.17.13
Fifth Sunday in Lent

JOHN 8:1-11
 (see below)
Year C




The Gospel offering from the Lectionary reading for today brings us to a primary Lenten moment of truth. Exposed here, right before our eyes, is the blatant sin of a woman taken in the very act of adultery. I take this to mean they burst in on her and jerked the covers off of her. She is truly guilty, of that there can be no doubt, but she is not the only one who carries guilt in the story, as St. John just as clearly wants us to see.

This text embodies the true Lenten message. The woman is unnamed, happily, but her experience of finding the LORD’s mercy remains one of the most encouraging stories found in Holy Scripture.  

Many of the oldest manuscripts do not have this story as part of their gospels, bringing some doubt upon the veracity of this account. In fact, some manuscripts even place it in St. Luke's Gospel. I have chosen not only to believe it to be true, but also to believe that we have here a profound gift from the Holy Spirit in the preservation of GOD' s message of reclamation to the church and to the world.

Like last week's story of the Prodigal, this text is a wide-open feast for the preacher. And, as we shall see, the Lenten themes reach deep and wide within its truths. For our purposes today I want us to focus on four lines of thought which I trust will take us to the heart of the story for a Lenten observance.
THE REALITY OF SIN 
THE EXPLOITATION OF THE POWERLESS 
THE BLINDNESS OF THE POWERFUL 
THE MERCY OF THE LORD


THE REALITY OF SIN
The text reads:
"Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle."
As I said, there is no doubt of this woman's guilt. Clearly she stands before these men, and before Jesus, without excuse. Like all of us, she stands condemned in her sin. And, like all of us she holds within her, that is within her heart, the desperate reality of selfishness and the self-life. 

Right at the beginning we would do well to take to heart this ever-present reality of sin within ourselves. We are all of us carriers of its disease and its heartache, aren't we? We are all of us infected with such an acute selfishness -- the self-life, which leads us down the road of the false-self and an eventual, personal destruction.

This dovetails perfectly with what we shared at length last Sunday in our homily on the Prodigal. Remember, we talked about the importance of finding and cultivating within us a genuine contrition for the reality of our own sinful heart. I argued then that cultivating that sense of a bruised heart allows the true acknowledgment of our sinful behavior, which is necessary for a godly repentance. Said differently, true repentance for sin occurs as a result of a tender, sensitive heart toward the Almighty.

Did this woman have a tender heart? Was she contrite? Or, did she stand before her accusers defiant and proud? I've seen both behaviors -- in others and in myself -- and if pushed to guess I would say she probably found her way to sorrow. I say this because of how Jesus ministered to her at the end of the pericope. And, because, even though she was tossed into public shame, I also believe that the presence of Jesus touched her profoundly and moved her toward repentance. But, of course, we cannot be sure.

THE EXPLOITATION OF THE POWERLESS
Notice, second, it is the woman who is shamed and exposed to public ridicule, but as has been pointed out by almost everyone, the other partner in sin is absent. Where is the man? For, as you know, in order for adultery to occur it takes two to accomplish the deed. Deuteronomy tells us:
"If a man is discovered committing adultery, both he and the other man's wife must be killed. In this way, the evil will be cleansed from Israel. (Deut. 22:22)
The woman here, because of her gender and her public sin, has no strength to resist these religious leaders, obviously. These powerful men will have their way with her. And, apparently, she really faces stoning -- a practice not usually fulfilled, even though as we have seen from Deuteronomy it was required. At least, this prospect of stoning is how the religious leaders use the woman to confront Jesus.

And to me theirs seems to be the greater sin. That the woman is wrong there is no doubt, but that these leaders are merely using her as a prop to confront Jesus in order to bring him down in front of the people, not only violates her personhood, but also trashes the settled mercy of GOD.

We can easily sympathize with her plight. To have ones sins so visibly exposed to the world reminds us of our own moments of exposure and failure. Perhaps we should remind these teachers and enforcers of the words of the LORD what was said about GOD when the Law was given of to Moses:
5 Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and called out his own name, "the LORD," as Moses stood there in his presence. 6 He passed in front of Moses and said, "I am the LORD, I am the LORD, the merciful and gracious God. I am slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness. 7 I show this unfailing love to many thousands by forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. Even so I do not leave sin unpunished, but I punish the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations."  (Exodus 34:5-7)
The LORD is merciful; the LORD is forgiving and rich in love, but where is the love of neighbor to be found in the hearts of these religious leaders? To be sure, we shall momentarily balance this mercy with the reality of GOD’s truth and purity, but I would assert that neither truth or mercy was on the minds of these leaders. Apparently, the woman is a merely theological thing, a specimen, to be used and either tossed aside or killed to make points against Jesus and his message.

THE BLINDNESS OF THE POWERFUL
And, what was their point? This woman was being used by the religious to set a trap for Jesus. If he moved for mercy toward her sin he could be portrayed as a law breaker by these leaders and could therefore be discarded by the people. But, if he moved with the letter of the law to stone her he would be seen as just one more pharisaical teacher who had no sense of the needs or the plight of the people. This is called a double-bind, and either way the truth of his message will be tainted. 

The text reads:
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
What would Jesus do? Shrewdly, he moved beyond the sin of the one to the sins of the many:
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin  be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.
There are two challenges on display here for all religious leaders. 

First, 
if we go about determined to name sins we should actually begin with our own and not the one in front of us. This must be our practice because it roots us in humility, which after all is the foundation of all the virtues. And humility is what these leaders in the text needed, and it is what I need, and it is what you need.

Second, 
this incident must also caution us against the danger of blind institutional investment. These religious leaders were deeply invested in the institution they helped create and sustain. And, when they perceived Jesus as a threat to this institution, they were compelled to move against him. Ultimately, as Jesus tells them at the Triumphal entry, their blindness caused them to miss their moment with the LORD. (Luke 19:44) 

If we, likewise, blindly invest in our institutions; if we believe heartily in them without reflection, we may be unable to see their flaws, and we may contribute to their sin and failure. That is, we may love our institution so much that when the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit blow change, or when sin enters the camp, we either resist, explaining away its importance, or we may even act to preserve the institution over the weak and the exploited. 

This practice is common to those of us who are succored by religious institutions, and like here in St. John’s Gospel we practice this blind preservation at our own spiritual peril.

THE MERCY OF THE LORD
Finally, we come to the Lenten moment and the point of the story:
So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Here we see the mercy of the LORD at work. Here we discover the reality of hope within our own hearts, burdened as they are with sin and selfishness and guilt. Here we see the hand of the Master willingly lifting us up in the midst of our shame and exposure. Here we see beyond some rigid institutional entrenchment to the individual person before the LORD. 

Think of this John-eight moment like this: 
  • We see in this text the Lenten movement that reminds us that the LORD is at work reclaiming his good world now marred by sin and greed and and violence and self. 
  • But, we also see that the heart of this reclamation is the individual sinner who looks up to him from the ground of brokenness, contrition, shame-exposure and loss. 
  • Therefore, what we see most is the eye of mercy on the sinful. It is the LORD’s balance which says: “Neither do I condemn you...(which is the looking with mercy)...Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” (which is to look toward the future)
That is, what is done is done, now look though the windshield and not the rearview mirror. Go forward now; be clean and open to GOD’s good world now being restored, and become part of that restoration. Go forth and cease the adultery, for that adds to the worlds brokenness and loss and grief and inhumanness. And, instead, live now for the Jesus-way, the narrow way of the LORD, who has forgiven you and who stands beside you in comfort and love.

_________________________

JOHN 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, 
and all the people started coming to him, 
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman 
who had been caught in adultery 
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught 
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin 
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”