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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Today’s Scripture Reading | John 7:53—8:11

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (NRSV)

I went back to Deuteronomy 22:22–24 to read the laws regarding “crimes against marriage” that the scribes and Pharisees were citing here and to Deuteronomy 17:7, which details how witnesses to adultery were to be the ones who cast the first stones at a guilty person’s execution. While it’s tempting to discuss how this story does—and doesn’t—fit the law’s circumstances, something else grabbed my attention.

Throughout the laws outlined in those sections, there’s a refrain that concludes each one. For every infraction considered, the crime is introduced, punishment mandated, and then the writer says, “Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.” As human beings (ancient Jews and twenty-first century Americans alike) we seem hard-wired to want clear-cut fixes to problems that are generally pretty difficult to wade through. Usually the murkier the issue, the more desperately we want an easy solution.

Let’s say the scribes and Pharisees hadn’t found Jesus that day and had gone ahead and stoned this nameless woman. Would the evil have been purged? Hardly. Though some folks would have gotten to feel plenty self-righteous, there would still have been evil. The evil that the man committed in the act of adultery. The evil that spurred those elders to try to test and trap Jesus. The evil that drew a crowd to the public humiliation and capital punishment of their neighbor.

It’s no different for us individually or collectively. Though bookstores and the Internet reveal an entire self-help industry, each of us can lament how far from perfection we stand. Though the United States still practices the death penalty and has the highest prison population rate in the world, we don’t seem to be safer or more virtuous.

Apparently Jesus didn’t believe in easy fixes. He used discernment, silence, reflection, conversation, compassion: messy, inexact, inefficient tools. But they’re the only ones that lead to fullness of life, for all of us.

Jesus, thank you for your just mercy. Help us to practice it, and in so doing, purge the evil from our midst. Amen.

Written by Susan Quaintance, Program Coordinator, Center for Life and Learning

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