The glory of his compassion - John 7:37 - 8:11
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One of the most sublime and moving descriptions of Jesus is found in Matthew’s Gospel, 12:20 which is a quote from Isaiah 42: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ At the time of Christ reeds were used for all sorts of things. A shepherd would often make a flute-like instrument out of a reed and play soft, gentle music on it. But if it became split or bruised it would no longer make music and the shepherd would throw it away. When a lamp burned down to the end of the wick, it would only smoulder without making any light and so it would be snuffed out. And in the ongoing ministry of the Lord Jesus it is quite clear who this imagery applies to. It is to people who are bruised and broken; people, who the world and legalistic religion would consider beyond repair, thought of as nothing but damaged goods only to be discarded as useless like a cheap spent cigarette lighter
Tell me; is there anything frailer than a bruised reed? There it is by the water’s edge. It was once strong and sturdy, now it is bowed and bent. And that may well be a picture of you if the truth be known. You can remember a time when you were strong and upright. That is until something happened. You were bruised -by harsh words, a friend’s anger, a spouse’s betrayal, a religion’s rigidity. And consequently you were wounded, bent ever so slightly, but feeling you could easily break any time. Is that you?
Let me also ask: is there anything more close to death than a smouldering wick? Once a flame passionate and glowing, now merely flicker and failing. Not yet cold, but no longer hot. That perhaps is a perfect description of the way you feel about your faith. You remember how once you shone so brightly, your light blazing a trail for others to follow. But then blew the cold wind. Someone said your ideas were stupid, that your zeal was too embarrassing. The harsh wind of criticism seemed relentless. Oh, you stood up to it for a time, but you felt isolated, alone, you turned around looking for some support and found none, leaving you feeling as if you were one pinch away from total extinction. Perhaps that is you or at least someone you know?
Well tonight we are going to look at a beautiful and moving moment in the life of Jesus in which he gloriously displayed that kind of compassion- a compassion which binds rather than breaks it is there in John’s Gospel, chapter 8 and the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery.
Now to properly understand what is happening and why, we need to look at this story in its wider context. Jesus is in Jerusalem and it is coming to the end of one of the major Jewish religious festivals - the Festival of Booths. And on the very last day Jesus did something which really put the fox in the chicken coupe, he stood up in the Temple courts and proclaimed in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ (John 7:38). Notice that. Not, ‘If anyone is thirsty let him go to God’ – but ‘Let him come to me.’ In fact Jesus is more or less quoting Isaiah 55, words originally spoken by Yahweh and saying those words are really his words. This is a thinly veiled claim to divinity that this thirty year old door hanger is making. And this is not lost on the religious establishment, for we read in v 44 that some wanted to seize him and the temple guards were given a good rollicking by the religious leaders for not doing that. Admittedly, Nicodemus makes a feeble attempt to defend Jesus, but their minds are made up, he is guilty of blasphemy- end of round one.
But overnight another plan is hatched. If a full frontal attack on Jesus is not feasible because of his popularity with the people, then they have to adopt a more indirect approach by making him unpopular with the people. So they come up with the plot which we see being unfolded in vv 1-4, ‘Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Now what do you say’ No longer were they going to challenge Jesus with some theoretical problem, but throw in his face a real live problem which adds a certain emotional pressure. Overnight they had ‘managed’ to arrest a woman ‘caught in the act of adultery.’ Let’s just pause there for a moment and try and imagine that. ‘Caught in an act of adultery’ says John. That was when the doors burst open. The covers jerked back. ‘This is not your husband.’ Shout the fearsome looking men, as they bear down on the frightened woman. ‘Put on some clothes we know how to deal with the likes you.’ And they do. So she is dragged from the moment of private passion in the bedroom in order to be made into a public spectacle in the streets. Heads poke from behind drawn curtains. Dogs bark. Neighbours stare. And the woman clutches a thin robe to hide her nakedness, but nothing can hide her shame. From this moment on her life will never be the same again. When she goes to the shops women will point and whisper. When she walks down the street heads will turn. When her name is mentioned people will remember this moment. And so she is paraded through the town until they reach the temple and there she is hurled before Jesus, hoping, praying that this is nothing but a nightmare and soon she will wake from it. But she knows she won’t. It is dawn and she has been caught.
But adultery was not the only shameful thing going on, look at what the motivation is, ‘They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.’ Jesus has drawn a large crowd around him and sat down to teach- the authoritative position of a rabbi- and it wasn’t until the crowds were in place that the Pharisees made their move- they wanted lots of witnesses for the trap they were ready to spring and here they were in bucket loads. But you have to ask yourself the question- how do religious professionals actually catch a woman in the act of adultery? What were they doing that night roaming the streets peering through windows or what? And to find one just like that overnight seem almost too convenient doesn’t it? Suggesting it may have been a put up job- a sort of honey trap. And what of the man involved, it does take two doesn’t it? Where is he? According to Leviticus 20:10, both should be stoned, and the religious leaders had just castigated the crowd for not knowing the law and here they are conveniently turning a blind eye in the case of the man. The fact is they couldn’t give two hoots about the law. They were not there to get a ruling on the law from Jesus but to get a lynching of Jesus. And so they hope to impale Jesus on the horns of a particularly nasty dilemma. If in line with his practice so far he shows mercy to the morally destitute and weak, then he will be accused as a law breaker himself. If, however, he upholds the law and signals that the woman should be stoned to death then that could bring him into conflict with the Roman authorities who have abrogated to themselves the right to carry out the death penalty. Either way Jesus looks like he is finished.
But ‘what about the woman?’ Well, what about her? She is immaterial. She is merely a pawn in their game. Who cares about her? And so she just stands there with her eyes fixed to the ground, too ashamed to look up. Her sweaty hair dangles. Her tears drip hot with hurt. Her lips are tight, her jaw is clenched. She knows she has been framed so there is no point in looking around for help; all she will see is indifference at best and contempt at worst. And maybe you know that feeling only too well yourself. Perhaps there was a time when you had been manipulated by people you trusted, so adding resentment to your shame. You too have looked around for help when you have needed it most and have found none, even within the church. Yes, there is such a thing as religious abuse – I have met many who have been subject to it, when they have been used as a means to an end to satisfy the power and egos of a church leadership, with the result that they find it very difficult to trust anyone again. So is there no one to turn to? Is there no kindness you can call on to ease your burden however slight? Well, yes there is. And he stands there in the middle of the circle with all eyes upon him. And that someone is of course, Jesus who transforms this dire episode into a story of grace, v6b ‘But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.’
Do you see what Jesus is doing? The Pharisees want a strict application of the law; Jesus gives a prophetic application of the law in line with the servant he is in fulfilment of Isaiah 42. For after the saying ‘ A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out’ it goes on, ‘In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.’ Jesus is concerned with bringing about justice but a justice which is linked with compassion. So let’s see how Jesus applies ‘his law’and it is quite different to the way we tend to go about it with cold, hard hearts.
First, what is all this business of Jesus writing in the ground with his finger? Well, this was the ‘8th day of the feast’ which was treated as a Sabbath when all Sabbath laws were in force. This included not writing which was classed as ‘work.’ But that raised the question: what constitutes writing? The Jews answer was anything which left a permanent mark, like putting ink to paper. But writing in the dust was considered OK as what was written down on the ground would eventually be blown away by the wind. So by doing this Jesus is making it known to his accusers that he is not some nincompoop from ‘up North’ who knows nothing of the niceties of Jewish religion. He is well aware of God’s law as well as the traditions that have grown up around it. So even here, Jesus can’t be jumped on as a law breaker even by the Pharisees’ strict standards. We are not told exactly what it was he wrote. Some think it was the 7th commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery’. Others speculate that it is the sentence for that act, ‘Death- stoning’. We really don’t know.
But there may have been some further significance attached to what Jesus was doing. John is very specific that he wrote on the ground with his finger (v6). Let us ask where else in the Bible do we find God writing with his finger? Well, in Deuteronomy 9:10 we read Moses saying: ‘The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire.’ The 10 commandments were written by the finger of God. It is not Moses who in the law commanded certain things to be done, it was God. And so here we have Jesus engaging in an act of profound symbolism. By writing on the ground with his finger he is making this statement: he is the one who gave the law at Sinai. As the law’s author he is its rightful interpreter. As the judge he will make a proper judgement on these matters. Already he has identified himself with the God who is the lawgiver by applying Isaiah 55 to himself, the one who makes the invitation to come to the waters those who thirst, but which goes on to speak about ‘the one who has made and everlasting covenant’ with Israel and ‘the word which goes out of my mouth and not returning empty.’ So what is Jesus going to do? Will he uphold the law he as God has given or will he break it?
Well, he upholds the law in several respects. Notice that he says carry out the act which is more than implied in verse 7, ‘Let the one without sin amongst you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ That is what the law says to do- stone her. However, Jesus also says, let it be the one without sin who does it first. Now Jesus is turning the tables on them. First, he is getting them to be willing to take responsibility for what might happen next. If there is any stoning to be done and the Roman authorities who patrolled the temple precincts, stepped in- you as well as me will be in trouble, says Jesus, do you have the courage of your convictions? This really tests whether they are bothered about the law and justice or just getting at Jesus. If it is the latter- fair enough but they will be in trouble too. Secondly, if any one did come forward to stone the woman and so claiming to be ‘sinless’ he would never live that down. This was a shame culture. A child wasn’t told ‘You did that wrong’ but ‘Shame on you.’ These people knew what Isaiah 53:6 said, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray.’ No one would dare step out for fear of being shamed. But Jesus might be even more condemning than that. In Dt 17:7 the witnesses to a crime must be the first to throw stones and must not be participants in the crime themselves. But that is precisely what has happened. When Jesus speaks about ‘having no sin’ he may be thinking of this particular sin; in which case these men had committed this sin on at least one count if not two. First, by watching the act and so voyeuristically participating in it, for the woman was caught in the act of adultery by these people so they must have seen it going on. But secondly if this has been contrived, which seems to be the direction in which the evidence points- how else did they just ‘manage’ to get an adulteress in time? Then they are authors of adultery. These people standing here are not the interpreters of the law they are its transgressors. It is they as much as the woman who are on trial before Jesus.
Then the whole scene suddenly changes, v 9, ‘At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman standing there.’ Naturally the people turn to the eldest for guidance to see what they would do first, how they would respond to Jesus’ challenge. And then you hear it, ‘thud, thud, thud’, as one by one members of the crowd drop their stones and then disappear like melting snow before the morning sun. And while this is happening Jesus is again stooping down to write in the ground. And you know even here Jesus is demonstrating the bruised reed approach to his opponents. They have just been humiliated by Jesus, made to look foolish and hypocritical, for that is what they are. But Jesus does not choose to look at them and gloat. Instead he puts his head down and writes in the dust, allowing them to withdraw with whatever shred of respect they may have still clinging to them like torn rags. Isn’t that a glorious thing to do? Isn’t that a challenge to us in our dealings with those who have hurt us and tried to trip us and we have been vindicated? Isn’t rather the temptation to push for more in exacting revenge, to rub their noses in it and we might think they jolly well deserve it after what they tried to do to us? But not Jesus. He holds back.
And so we are left with Jesus and the woman. What is the judge going to say now the crowd has gone? A few minutes earlier the terrified woman had expected brutal violence and a painful death. What can she expect now? A rebuke? A tongue lashing? More humiliation? No. Not from the one who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick. ‘Woman, where are they?’ he asks. ‘Has no one condemned you?’ She answers. ‘No one sir.’ Then the judge pronounces his verdict: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.’ Again the judgement of Jesus is absolutely right. He does not condemn her in her sin but neither does he overlook her sin. He does not condemn but neither does he condone.
But what of justice? What happens to sin? Well, it is here that we are given an indication as to how Jesus upholds the law in a deeper sense in that we have a pointer to the atonement Jesus is later to make for all sinners. As all of this was going on, who do you think the Pharisees anger was directed at? If there was any anger towards the woman at all, it was soon redirected onto Jesus. At great personal cost Jesus shifts all their personal hostility away from the woman on to himself, indeed by the end of the chapter the people are ready to stone him! And the thing is- Jesus doesn’t even know her name. She is a bruised reed and a smouldering wick which is all he needs to know and he has compassion for her! And the one who in Isaiah 42 binds up the broken, and who in Isaiah 55 offers fresh and living waters to the spiritually thirsty, is the one who in Isaiah 53, is led like a lamb to the slaughter, who is pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.’ And it is no accident that all of this is taking place at the Temple, the place where God offers atonement for the sins of wayward lawbreakers whether of the religious variety or the immoral variety. Jesus accepts the sexual code of the Old Testament, after all he wrote it, but he bears its penalty at the cross. Now I don’t know or even want to know what sins you have committed. You may feel sullied by sexual sin. You may have had your conscience pricked because you have been so self- righteous in looking down on others and harsh in your treatment of them. But what I do know is that there is only one person who can forgive and deal with that and one place you must come to. The person is Jesus and the place is the cross.
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