Numbers 15:32-36; John 8: 2-11
October 14, 2012
Now that I have your attention, or at least I hope that I do, here it is:
Day 62. Time for me to tackle the next item on my list of Most Perplexing Laws: capital punishment.
The Hebrew scriptures prescribe a tremendous amount of capital punishment. Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that. It wasn’t just for murder. You could also be executed for adultery, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, and witchcraft, among others.
The most common punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone somehow. But how? This is not exactly an accepted practice in our world today, and I’m still struggling with how it was accepted back then. But I think about this and figure out a loophole: The Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones. So I will use little pebbles.
A few days ago, I gathered a handful of small white pebbles from Central Park. Now all I needed were some victims. I decided to start with Sabbath breakers. That’s easy enough to find in this workaholic city. I noticed that a potbellied guy at the Avis down our block had worked on both Saturday and Sunday. So no matter what, he’s a Sabbath breaker.
Here’s the thing: Even with pebbles, it is surprisingly hard to stone people.
My plan had been to walk nonchalantly past the Sabbath violator and chuck the pebbles at the small of his back. But after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed.
My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history – I said, “I’m sorry,” and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and I apologized again. Highly unsatisfying.
Today I get another chance. I am resting in a small public park on the Upper West Side, the kind where you see retirees eating tuna sandwiches on benches.
“Hey, you’re dressed funny-looking.”
I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-seventies, I’d guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing one of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the forties.
“You’re dressed funny,” he snarls. “Why you dressed so funny?”
“I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible,” I tell him. “The Ten Commandments, caring for orphans and widows, stoning Sabbath-breakers and adulterers . . .”
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“Well, if I could, yeah, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket. “Oh, I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.” I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then flinging it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this grizzled old man to make the first move. I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
We stare at each other. My pulse has doubled. Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.
I think I’m done with this stoning thing for now. Forget the stonee. It’s just as dangerous for the one doing the throwing.
(from The Year Of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, pgs. 91-93).
Well, there you have it – my favorite story in the book! I mean, what’s not to love about it, right? You’ve got a funny-dressed guy flinging pebbles at Sabbath-breakers, and an old man wearing his indiscretion like a badge of honor – quoting from The Honeymooners, for crying out loud! “I’ll punch you right in the kisser….” Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!
It’s a story that I thought merited being worked into a sermon. But not just because it’s funny. You see, when we dig below the surface, we see something else here: we see a man in conflict. On the one hand A.J. is trying to live biblically and carry out – at least as far as the Old Testament goes – a notion of justice. But on the other hand, it takes every bit of willpower he can muster to carry that justice out – even when it’s nothing more than “accidentally” dropping a pebble on his shoe; the most polite stoning in history, as he puts it. And see, I don’t think his discomfort with this should go unnoticed, because I kind of wonder if you and I have something to learn from it.
I mean, this is tough stuff, isn’t it? And please understand, I don’t want this sermon to be seen as a referendum on capital punishment. That is an issue that, like abortion and homosexuality, tends to polarize people into political and theological corners. But I do think A.J.’s story here mirrors our larger society in a significant way; and that is this: we all want justice and wrongs to be made right, but rarely do we want to be the ones to carry it out. And maybe the reason behind that is, at some level, we are painfully aware of our own brokenness too.
Which is kind of what Jesus was trying to get them to see, don’t you think? Those men who brought that woman to him, accusing her of the same brokenness the man in A.J.’s story had openly acknowledged. They brought her to Jesus, and gleefully pointed out that her crime was punishable by a good stoning. They brought her to Jesus, not only with wrath-filled righteousness in their hearts, but a deep loathing for this man from Nazareth who was everything they were not, and a hope that they might be able to trap him in his own words and be rid of him forever.
They brought her to Jesus. And what is Jesus doing? He is bent over, and he’s doing something in the sand with his finger.
Now please tell me, in the many times you have heard this story, that at some point you’ve wondered to yourself, “What on earth was Jesus doing in the sand?” Please tell me this, if for no other reason to make me feel better about my obsession with it! I mean, really, what was so important in that incredibly tense and heated moment, with a woman’s life hanging in the balance, that Jesus would be down there doodling in the sand? I remember in Jr. High Sunday school, we were reading this story and our teacher breezed right over that, and I interrupted her and asked what he was doing in the sand and she said, “Well, it really doesn’t matter; let’s keep on going,” and I said, “No, it does matter; otherwise it wouldn’t be there – so what was he doing?” And she just rolled her eyes at me. Yes, I was that kid in Sunday School!
This past week I posed that very question on our church’s Facebook page – not exactly a scientific study, I know; but I wanted to see what others might say. Lots of great responses. Some said Jesus was writing the names of the woman’s accusers in the sand; other said he was writing their sins. Some surmised that he was just taking pause to calm the situation down; others imagined he was figuring out the odds of whether they’d throw their stones.
But you know, it finally hit me the other day, after all these years, what I believe Jesus was doing down there in the sand. And here it is: I don’t believe Jesus was writing or drawing anything. I don’t believe he was doodling or stalling for time. I think Jesus was simply running his fingers through that sand – feeling the coarse roughness of those thousands and thousands of tiny grains of matter, that at some point in the past had been part of something bigger than itself: part of a stone. A stone, perhaps, just like the ones those men were now clutching; a stone that had been shattered into sand over an accused and broken body, put to death by the law those Pharisees were so eager to act upon.
I believe Jesus was running his fingers through that sand and asking himself, How many more stones? How many more will be shattered into sand like this? How many more stones will be cast and used to punish, to condemn, to kill, to make a statement, to send a message – all in the name of a loving and grace-filled God? How many more stones?
And you know, I believe Jesus answered his own question as he took one final stroke of his finger in the dirt. And that is when he turned to the accusers. And he did not discount the law, nor did he give them permission to act on it. With one sentence – one brilliant, grace-filled sentence – Jesus helped those Pharisees realize that the real target of the stones they were clutching was not the woman at their feet. It was themselves. He helped them realize – painfully and beautifully so – that God’s grace and love always trumps judgment and condemnation. And thanks be to God for that! Because it’s not just “the other” who is the recipient of that grace. It is us as well.
Did you know, friends, that grace has a sound? It really does – a beautiful sound! You know what grace sounds like? It sounds like the popping of bony fingers unclenching and letting go of the stones they’d been holding onto so tightly. It sounds like the soft thud of those stones, one by one, hitting the ground, never to become sand, at least not on this day. And it sounds like the voice of Jesus himself, telling a woman that her accusers had all left, because they had been changed; and that she, in fact, had been changed too.
It is not that justice should not be served. It is not that capital punishment is wrong – or right. The truth of the gospel is this: we all stand accused. We all are broken people. And because of that, we all are infused with God’s amazing grace. And it is that grace – and not our stones – that you and I hold on to with our bare hands. Hanging on for dear life! Because we judge not only others but ourselves. We put ourselves on trial and issue our own sentence – of unmitigated guilt, irreparable regret, permanent brokenness.
Grace simply will not let us do that anymore. Grace will not let us cast stones and pummel rock into sand. Grace releases the burden of justice from us and returns it where it should be – in the hands of a wonderful God, who never throws stones, but only loves. So that when Jesus says to us, “Go and sin no more,” it is not a threat. It’s an invitation. It’s a promise. And for that promise, and in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.