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.

What Not To Say

Coffee and I do not have  relationship.
At all.
Not everyone is OK with women in ministry. Well, that was an understatement to begin with. Always start with the obvious and go from there.

I remember the first time I realized this. I was on summer break after my sophomore year of college. The pastor had invited me into the pulpit on a Sunday morning to talk about what I’d been doing in school and what I felt God calling me to do. When I mentioned that I felt called into ministry, he asked what sort. As a joke, I replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take your job.”

This was not received as a joke. (It was by him—he was a wonderful, kind, and honest man. Wherever you are, Gerry Robertson, you are one of the best men I’ve ever known.) There was silence in the congregation like you would hear after an announcement that California had dropped into the ocean. I didn’t know why. As a new Christian, I knew none of the cultural norms. I had no clue that, for some denominations, women could not be pastors. I barely had an idea what denominations were.

In the ensuing years, I’ve met people with whom I’ve disagreed on this issue who were gracious thoughtful people, and I’ve met those who were . . . not. I’m not here to debate who is right and who is wrong. I could do a series of posts on that—but I don’t particularly want to.

What I’m going to offer are a few tips for talking about it together. There are ways to talk to women in ministry and ways not to, no matter which side you fall on. There are things to say and things not to say. If we all want to veer toward the gracious and thoughtful side, even while disagreeing, here I offer:

Five things not to say to a woman in ministry

(And yes, all of them have been said to me. All of them.)

Yes, I know where my spoons are. Usually. But not
anyone else’s.

Where are the serving spoons in the church kitchen?

I don’t know. I also don’t know how to turn on the oven or make the coffee. Honestly—I don’t. You would not want me to make the coffee. Unless you’re going to ask the male pastor the same questions, don’t ask me. Being female does not equate to knowing my way around the kitchen by some cosmic genetic cooking code. (If there is a genetic cooking code, I so did not get it.)

So, your degree is in Children’s Ministry?

There is a reason my first career was high school teaching. I love interacting with teens. I love interacting with kids under ten solely on an individual basis. An entire room full of them? I think I’d rather take a job selling frostbite balm in Panama.

So no, my MDiv is in theology, in fact. Just like the question above, if you would not dream of asking my male colleagues this, don’t ask me. Try, “Is there a particular area of ministry you’re passionate about?” That opens a door for us to talk about so many things.

Is your husband a pastor, too, then?

Assumption underlying this question: You could not/should not do this alone; therefore, the only possible option is if you’re helping your husband. It’s so much fun when we are introduced in groups. Inevitably, as soon as they hear, “This is Pastor Richardson,” people turn to my husband and say, “So tell me about your church. What kind of ministry do you do?” At which point my husband, having a good sense of humor, says, “Well, I cut peoples’ throats for a living.” (He’s a surgeon—just making that quite clear.) “But you should probably ask my wife about the church.”

If you want to know what my husband does, just ask that. Then, if you’re more comfortable talking about that, great. I love bragging on my husband. He’s one of my favorite topics. (Although I have to admit to being far less comfortable talking about cutting out cancer than about theology. But maybe that’s just me.)

I don’t think I could take a women in the pulpit seriously. They’re too emotional/hormonal.

I once had a fellow seminary student critique my sermon by saying, “I was too distracted by the fact that you’re pregnant to listen.” Um, sorry. Next time I’ll just . . . deflate. (To his credit, the professor made it very clear that criticism based on physical appearance was not OK, ever. I had some good profs.)

I am not this. You are not this. Which is good.
Because I’ve not seen an episode where they end well.
Some women are emotional. Some men are emotional. Most of us are just human, with a wide range of feeling depending on the topic. Would it be OK for me to say, “I don’t think I can take a man in the pulpit seriously. They’re unfeeling, sports-crazed, Mr. Spock wannabes?” Of course not—because that’s a generalized male stereotype. I’ve never worked with a pastor it fits.

People should be evaluated for who they are individually, not as a herd. God creates individuals. We’re not assembly line. Only Cybermen all get the same wiring. Hey, let’s talk instead about the last sermon you did take seriously and learn something from. I’d love to hear those thoughts and learn something, too.

I read my Bible and I believe it means what it says.

I’m very glad you do. That’s a good choice. If more people did, we’d be a lot less messed up.

I read my Bible. I really do. Every day. Almost. Heck, I spent four years of my life and lots of student loan money studying that book and reading it a lot. If I truly believe it’s in the Bible and I do not obey it, I am grieved. I know the effects of disobedience, and I don’t want them in my life. I read the Bible, and I believe that it means what it says. But I’ve read it front to back, inside and out, in context, and I don’t believe it says I can’t minister equally beside my brothers.

We can never have a rational, fair discussion if there is an a prioriassumption that I am not as dedicated to Scripture as someone with whom I don’t agree. If you expect me to believe in your integrity and devotion to Scripture, please believe in mine. Let’s start from there.

Ask me why I believe in interpreting Corinthians or Timothy differently than you do. Ask me what I do with difficult passages that talk about submission. That would make a great discussion. We can still come out of it not agreeing. But we will have respected one another. And that makes Jesus happy, if I interpret John 13 correctly.

What do you think? Can we disagree and still be respectful and generous? How?