Jesus was traveling through the small towns near Jerusalem, and pausing to teach and heal along the way. One day he was speaking to a large crowd, and all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. Now, Judea was under Roman rule; both the Roman colonizers, and the local government that collaborated with the Romans, demanded high taxes from the people. Tax collectors were Judeans who worked for that double-layered government, demanding payments from even the poorest, and a little on top for themselves. As for the sinners, who knows? Probably some were people whose personal lives did not meet general moral standards. Others might be petty thieves or general good-for-nothings. None of these characters were probably very welcome in their local synagogue on Saturdays, to hear the Scriptures read and interpreted. But Jesus preaches outdoors, where anybody can listen; so they gather around to see if he has any good news for them.
Now, there are also some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of righteousness around: some Pharisees, who are part of a religious movement within Judaism to call people back to daily observance of the Old Testament Law; and some scribes or legal experts, who spend their days reading Scripture and debating how it should be understood and applied. And they start grumbling to each other about Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Judaism has a lot of laws to do with purity and food, so eating with sinners – unclean people – is real gross.)
So Jesus tells a little story, as he often does. In fact, he tells three stories, though we only get two today. He says, Suppose you had a hundred sheep and you lost one. Wouldn’t you do anything to find the lost one, and bring it home tenderly, and call your friends to share your rejoicing? Or suppose you had ten coins and you lost one. Wouldn’t you light your lamp and sweep the whole house until you found the lost one, and then celebrate with all your friends? In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
The Gospels suggest that a lot of people in Jesus’ time thought there were two kinds of people in the world: righteous people and sinners. It’s the kind of harsh binary thinking to which humans are particularly prone when we are stressed and anxious: In or out. Us or them. Good or bad. But Jesus says, Nope. Nobody is worthless or irredeemable. God doesn’t write anybody off.
The lost coin and lost sheep stories – and the prodigal son story, which follows them – are pretty familiar to many of us. And rightly so; I think these parables tell us something really important about the heart of God, made known to us through Jesus Christ’s words and witness. But this year I’m especially drawn to the thing that Jesus’ critics say about him: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Let me tell you another story about a time when Jesus met a sinner. This one is in John’s Gospel. Listen.
Jesus is preaching in the Great Temple. And some legal experts and Pharisees – the same kinds of folks criticizing Jesus in today’s Gospel – drag this woman forward. They say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery – having intimate relations with somebody who is not her husband. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this – to throw stones at her until she is dead. What do you say?” They said this to test him. They knew he was unlikely to say the woman should be killed – everybody knew he was a big softie about sinners! But if he went against the clear judgment of the Law of Moses, from the Book of Deuteronomy, then they would have grounds to accuse him of heresy.
But Jesus didn’t answer right away. Instead he bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. They kept questioning him – Should we stone her? What does the Law require, Jesus? And finally he stood up and said, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Then he went back to writing on the ground.
There was a little silence. Then one of the elders who was standing there, one of the ones who’d been shouting angrily a moment ago – he turned, and left, pushing his way through the crowd. Another followed. The men holding the woman – so many angry hands – first one released its grip, then another. In a moment nobody was holding her. One man awkwardly tried to straighten her dress. One by one, the accusers vanished into the crowd. Finally the woman stood alone before Jesus, in the center of all those people.
Jesus was still writing in the dirt. I can’t tell you how much I love that weird detail. There have been many hypotheses over the centuries about what he might have been writing. One early theory was that he was writing, “Earth accuses earth.” Like, we’re all dirt; why are we wasting time trying to hurt each other? I’ve also heard a modern theory that he was writing, “Where’s the man?”
Now Jesus straightens up and looks at the woman. He says to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” She says, “No one, sir.” Jesus says, “I don’t condemn you either. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”
This story is not in our lectionary cycle. I assume that’s because modern Scripture scholarship sees it as sort of quasi-canonical. It appears in the eighth chapter of John, but our earliest and best manuscripts of John’s Gospel don’t include it; it’s first mentioned in a text from the 300s. So it seems like it was added to the Gospel fairly late. That doesn’t mean it’s not a real Jesus story, passed down by another channel and eventually pasted into John’s Gospel. The theologian Jerome, writing in the early 5th century, hypothesized that some men didn’t want this story in the Bible because it might make their wives think it was OK to mess around. Whatever the reason, this story has an ambiguous standing as Scripture, these days. The NRSV, the Bible translation used by most mainline churches, puts double brackets around it: “I dunno about this part.”
But this story sure sounds like Jesus to me. It is part of *my* Gospel. The people bringing this woman to Jesus believe themselves to be righteous people who have identified a sinner. Jesus’ response breaks open their assumption about the two kinds of people in the world. He asks them to examine their own hearts and lives: Who here has never sinned? Step right up! Grab a rock! And – to their credit – they pause. They reflect. And somebody – bless him – dares to be the first to turn away. To acknowledge that he has no grounds to judge anybody.
The whole concept of sin, of being a sinner, comes from religion. A sinner is somebody who breaks God’s rules, right? And yet – this whole area of how we think about sin and sinners has long been one of the biggest gulfs between Christ and His Church. The Church, through the ages, has been too wiling to accept and propagate the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: saints or sinners, in or out, good or bad, us or them. Not only that, the Church, though the ages, has been quite selective in the sins it condemns and penalizes – reserving its harshest judgment for sins of the body and the passions.
One of my favorite authors, the 20th century British novelist and theologian Dorothy Sayers, wrote about this phenomenon with great insight. She wrote, “Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.’”
It’s not that Jesus didn’t call out sin; he definitely did. But he – like the prophets before him – saved his harshest words for the sins of power, avarice, and callouness. The worst he ever says to anyone caught in sexual sin is, Hey, do better next time.
And – this is really important – he is always, always inviting people to change. Jesus thinks there are two kinds of people in the world, too: People who know that they need to continue the work of turning their hearts and lives towards God; and people who are in denial. Who think they already have it all figured out.
This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.
The story of this woman, and the men so eager to condemn her, was on my mind because Bryan Stevenson alludes to it in his book Just Mercy, which I read recently, along with some other St. Dunstan’s folk. The book walks you relentlessly through some of the many, many ways our criminal justice system is broken. Pervasive racial bias at every level, every step. Police and DAs willing to collaborate and fabricate evidence to secure a conviction, regardless of guilt. Harsh legislation leading to more and longer prison terms. Lack of compassion for the impact of poverty, trauma, addiction and mental illness in people’s lives – especially in kids’ lives. Late in the book Stevenson wonders, in frustration and grief: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?” (288)
A few pages later, he describes meeting an older African-American woman sitting in the courthouse where he’s just spent a draining day fighting for justice. She tells him that she comes to be present for people who need a kind word or a shoulder to cry on. She tells him, “I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other… it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” (308)
Stevenson continues, “Today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even… Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion… We can’t simply watch that happen… We have to be stonecatchers.”
Stonecatchers. Not stone-throwers. Stone-catchers. People who watch for the moments when someone’s getting ready to throw a metaphorical stone – to attack, scapegoat, blame, diminish somebody because we think they’re Out and we’re In; or more likely because we hope that making them Out will help us feel In. That naming them as Bad will help us feel Good. Catch those stones. Because there is no clear line between sinners and saints, good and bad. We are all in this together. Stevenson writes, “I do what I do because I’m broken too… Our shared brokenness [connects] us…. Simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” (289-90)
The lost coin, the lost sheep, the condemned woman: all these Gospel stories tell us what Jesus has to say to sinners, to those miserable wretches who fail our tests of morality and righteousness. And what Jesus has to say to sinners is: God is seeking you with urgency and love. I don’t condemn you. Come, share a meal. Go, and sin no more.
Some excerpts from Dorothy Sayers on sin:
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.