Where Are Your Accusers?

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I grew up on cop and courtroom shows. I loved the drama of catching the bad guy or seeing a lawyer convince the jury, in commanding tones of injured justice, that the defendant was innocent. I planned to become a lawyer up until my last two years of college.

Having worked in a law office and served on a jury, I’m now aware that television doesn’t portray a courtroom exactly . . . accurately. There’s a lot less drama and a lot more drudgery. We don’t show justice quite as it happens. (But if you want to see a humorous video of all our favorite dramatizations, click here.)

This is nothing new. Courtroom scenes have always been played in different ways, sometimes in ways far from just.

Today’s story — and the question God asks—isn’t just a story about one person, or one trial. And it is so relevant to today’s world.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. (John 8.1-6)

 

So here’s the setting. A crowd. Jesus teaching. And what happens? This group of men interrupt the teaching (rude) to deposit a woman, most likely with little clothing, in the middle of the crowd. Its wrong on so many levels.

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Most Embarrassing Moment

Have you ever been embarrassed in front of a group? I remember one particular 10th grade spelling bee. At some point, I looked across the room at my crush. And he was looking at me. I looked back. I flirted a little. I smiled, made eyes, and was generally overjoyed that he was looking right at me.

Until I realized that everyone was looking right at me. Because it was my turn. And the entire classroom had seen my awkward tenth-grade attempts at flirting.

I have no idea if I spelled the word correctly.

This woman is completely vulnerable, at risk, and humiliated. They’ve made sure of it.

The wording says they “put” her in front of the crowds. Like she is a stray fork or a plate of bad cafeteria food they can toss wherever they like. She is, in fact, their tool for entrapping Jesus. Little more.

She has no agency at all in this matter.

In a trial that should have been private and should, by law, have involved the guilty man as well, the men decide to make her shame public instead, because she fits their agenda.

Does this all sound vaguely familiar?

It’s the way women have always been treated. And Jesus isn’t having it.

Keeping the Law?

For men so intent on keeping the law, they break several.

1 —They could and should have brought her privately if they wanted a court judgement. They brought her in public, to shame her and challenge Jesus.  They wanted a dramatic lynching, and they wanted him holding the noose. It’s not about justice, and it’s not about her. She’s collateral damage.

2—They could and should have brought both guilty parties. Except a man would have demanded his rights. He would not have been as vulnerable. She had no rights. She was an easy target. People who want power choose easy, vulnerable, targets with no ability to make their own case.

3—They could and should have brought the required two witnesses forward immediately. Except, well, for two people to actually witness adultery? They had to see it at the same time and place and have the same story. In other words, they had to have set her up. No one accidentally witnesses adultery, certainly not two people. Yet these witnesses don’t materialize.

4—They could and should have tried to stop the sinner out of compassion. That was the law. Obviously, no one did. They watched and waited.

That’s just a start at the injustice of it all.

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Grace or Law?

It was a test of grace or law. Would Jesus lean too far toward grace—let her go— and break the law? Or would he lean too far toward law —agree to stone her—and invalidate all he’d taught?

Either way, the leaders are back in power. That’s the point.

They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. (John 8.7-9)

They kept demanding an answer. They are impatient, wanting condemnation on their terms, their timeline.

Jesus Replies

Jesus gives his answer. Fine. Toss a stone. Throw it. Hard.

But only according to the law that you so carefully keep—the two witnesses have to go first. The crowd would know that was the law. The accusers would, too.

He demands that her accusers be the first to begin taking a life. If your testimony is absolutely truthful, he hints, this should not be hard. If you haven’t misrepresented anything, exaggerated, told one white lie—you’re good. Go ahead. Throw a rock.

And no one does.

Jesus is keeping law for them, but enacting mercy for her all at once.

Never cross Jesus when death is on the line.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  (John 8.10-11)

Didn’t even one of them condemn you?

The truth here, in Jesus’ beautiful question?

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Romans 8.1-2)

Sometimes we are this woman.

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In this life, People will shame you, hurt you when you’re vulnerable, treat you like an object to use, humiliate you, judge and condemn you. I know they have.

But they don’t have the power to make that call. Don’t let them have that power.

Has no one condemned you? No, Lord.

In calling Jesus Lord, she is transferring power. She is admitting him as her master. And she is transformed. Her accusers no longer have power over her. They can’t bring her shame, judgment, or hurt. Only he can. But he doesn’t.

Look into face of your Lord. Hear his words. “Neither do I condemn you.” Let them cover you with grace and truth.

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. (Romans 8.33-34)

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

There is more to this story. We’ll get into it next week. For today, though, remember, shame has no place in God’s kingdom. The answer to Jesus question is—no one. No one can condemn us. Only Him. And he doesn’t. Let it transform you in all those deep places of fear, humiliation, and shame.

She is free at the end of the story, in more ways than one. He offers the same thing to all of us.

Jesus the Feminist

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Last week, we looked at the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus refuses to condemn her, escaping the trap the teachers of the law have set for him, and her, once again.

The fact that she is freed, not only from death but from her life of shame, is the first amazing part of this story. But it’s not the only amazing part.

As modern people far removed from first century Palestine, we can’t really recognize the revolutionary things Jesus did. We don’t know that culture, and we often don’t see his actions as they would have. We usually are left to take the obvious moral and assume Jesus meek and mild except for that tossing temple tables aberration.

But Jesus was not about the status quo then, and he isn’t now either. Jesus doesn’t play, and he was never meek and mild in the face of evil. One of biggest areas he refuses to play is in the just  treatment of women. Make no mistake–that’s what’s going on in this story. We have to get into the minds of the audience to see it.

Jesus doesn’t play

He isn’t solely about setting her free here, although he certainly is about that. He’s about much, much more. He’s about the way we treat women, still, oh so horribly, sadly, still treat women, two thousand years later.

He wasn’t having it then, and he’s not having it now.

Look at some details.

She is surrounded by a circle of men willing to sacrifice her for what they want. Isn’t that relevant?

It doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s done for their purposes — but yet it does. They’ve waited for this woman  and this sin.

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Think about it—there are sinners all over the place. All they had to do was find some disobedient teenager and haul him in front of Jesus. It could not be too difficult to find. Being disrespectful to your dad would warrant the same sentence, according to the law, and they could have probably found that on any block. Why not do that, rather than create a convoluted, contrived, completely confusing drama with this woman and adultery?

Why?

Because women and sexual sins were easy targets, just like they are now. It was easy to blame them then, and it still is. It was, and is, simpler to stand aside, pretend that since we don’t sin like that we can feel like the better person.

She’s got a big red “X” on her chest, and not much has changed for the pharisees of the world.

Last week I said that sometimes, we’re the woman in this story. Sadly,

Sometimes, we’re the pharisees.

“It is terribly important that the ‘accused’ in the story is a woman. In the first century, Judaism had stereotyped women as instigators whenever sexual sins were committed and labeled them as lacking the spiritual and moral fiber needed to uphold the law. The sexual passions of adolescence, for instance, were viewed as coming from the seductive attractions of females. The absence of the woman’s lover in the story is crucial. (Gary Burge, The NIV Application Commentary)

In other words, what was she wearing? What did she have to drink? Where was she walking? When? How did she lead him on?

You know the drill.

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Jesus saw no man present at the kangaroo court. He did see a whole mess of men throwing blame at a woman. He saw a story that had been and has been since played out a thousand times. He saw a woman, a co-image of God, used as an object of someone’s passion and then blamed for the outcome. The man got a pass.

Don’t tell me Jesus isn’t relevant. 

For every #MeToo story out there, Jesus knows. He saw it. He refused to let it go by.

This isn’t the only time he made it clear that blaming the woman was not OK.

I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. (Matthew 5.28-29)

He contradicts every evangelical modesty lesson ever right here. Nope, guys. It’s not her. It’s you. Take responsibility for your own stuff. Stop blaming the women. It’s. On. You.

Eye gouging is serious language.

It’s radical. Revolutionary. Jesus was so insanely pro-woman, but his followers are still having the same issues the pharisees did. Times do not change. There should never have had to be a #MeToo if the church was really following Jesus.

Sometimes we’re the woman. Sometimes we’re the pharisees. And,

Sometimes we’re the audience.

It’s a gambit that has not changed. Vulnerable women are used by the powerful for their purposes. We see the news stories every day, and we don’t even register a reaction anymore to the Harvey Weinsteins, Larry Nassars, or Andy Savages.

The crowd watched the woman dragged half-naked before them, and they knew this was wrong. Yet no one stepped forward to say so. No one. They were too afraid of the powerful religious establishment.

It’s too tempting, and too dangerous, to watch #MeToo and #ChurchToo move across our vision, be outraged for a moment, and then move on.

Jesus confronts the whole mess. He sees a woman de-imaged before him by the religious leaders. When he forgives her and gives her back her dignity, he sends a powerful message to his audience.

See these women. Hear them. Don’t turn away.

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If we’re the audience, we have some things to ask ourselves before we move on from Jesus’ question—Does no one condemn you?

  • Do we listen to women’s stories?
  • Do we disallow the tired stereotype of women as emotional creatures, or temptresses who make up stories to trap men?
  • Do we let judges know that slaps on the wrist for assault on women are not acceptable?
  • Do we raise girls who will respect themselves?
  • Do we refuse to shame them or burden them with the sins of men and boys?
  • Do we teach our boys that we are all responsible for our own sin?

Sometimes we’ re the crowd, too afraid to speak up. Afraid to contradict the religious leaders of our day as well.

I love Jesus even more after this story. He’s not having it. Not then, not now. He won’t stand for people using women or for meting out unequal justice between the genders.

It’s radical. It’s beautiful. And we need to see it for exactly what it was and is.

Matthew 1 and the Seismic Jolt of Christmas

Christianity is often accused of being anti-woman. People see it as a religion that treats women as second class and subservient. Nothing could be so wrong. Now, plenty of religious people do, in fact, treat women this way. Many sincere believers are certain the Bible even teaches this. But that is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is definitely not the belief system, or the behavior, of Jesus. And proof of this begins, well, at the very beginning. In Matthew, chapter one.
Most folks skim over chapter one. Seriously, who gets that much entertainment out of a list of “Joe was the father of John who was the father of Jim who was the father of . . .” Except the actual names in Matthew are much, much harder to pronounce.
But four times, we get stopped in the litany. Right in the middle of that perfect rhythm of dads and sons, we get a seismic jolt, four times. They are the names of the women. I spent one blog post talking about them last year; this year, I want to spend four. Why? Because I want to. And it’s my blog.
No one ever included the women in lists like this. No one remembered them. No one considered them worth the mention. The fact that Matthew did blares a message across the ages we take for granted in our theoretically egalitarian society: 

Jesus came, right from the start, to cut through our ideas of who measures up and who’s important with his message—everyone is immeasurably important.
To grasp how revolutionary this declaration of Matthew’s is, we must understand how fundamentally not true this was for people of his time. People had a hierarchy by which to judge other people, and women were at the bottom. So were the disabled, the foreign, and the poor. The mere existence of this list in Matthew is a challenge flung into the teeth of the world. Love and value for everyone is taking over. We’re here, we’re ready to play, and we’re not going home.
So he begins with Tamar. Might as well start with Desperate Housewives. You can read the entire account here, if you wish. Just know, abridged version, she is not exactly without scandal. Desperate for a son and thus someone to care for her as a widow alone, she opts for a less than conventional route to pregnancy. As a result, she ends up almost burned alive as a prostitute. She also ends up mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.
Tamar had been treated unfairly by those in power over her, and she was afraid. Afraid she would be alone, ashamed, and impoverished later in life. I think we can relate to those fears. Do you carry shame you’re afraid will be revealed, whether it is actually shameful or imagined shame? It was considered shameful for Tamar to have had two husbands and no sons. Her shame tripled when she was denied a third husband because of her habit of losing husbands. Matthew assures you and me from chapter one that Jesus came to deal with shame.
Fears of being alone? You haven’t found that “one” to go through life with? Or you did, but he or she turned out to be not the one? Maybe the kids are all gone and the quiet closeness of the house seems unbearable. Or you are the kid whom no one sees or hears. Matthew promises—Jesus came to deal with alone.

The fact that Matthew includes Tamar in Jesus bloodline fairly screams, if we will hear it: 

Jesus came from a woman who was frightened, alone, ashamed, and set aside because he came for people who felt the same way.
He cries from the cradle and then whispers from the cross—I will be the eraser of shame and the lover of the lonely. Come. Just come.
No more let sin and sorrow reign,
     nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make his blessings flow,
     far as the curse is found.

Because it’s Christmas.