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Christian Cliché: "God helps those who help themselves"

October 28, 2018

I’m sure all the parents in the room know what it feels like to accidentally happen upon something your kids did or were currently doing that you probably would have had them not do, given the choice. For example, my parents told me a story about when I was Boston’s age and I shoved a slice of cheese in the VCR. They probably wouldn’t have encouraged me to do that, but…it happened, so…

Well, this happens quite often with my kids. And it’s usually stuff that isn’t a huge deal, but it’s enough to make life a little harder on us, right? Just in the past couple weeks alone, there was a day when the kids dumped all the dogfood out into the dog’s bowl so we just had an overflowing mound of dogfood sitting on the floor. Or, another day, I walked downstairs in the morning, and I walked into the living room to see my kids. And when I walked in there, my son yelled “Daddy! Look!”, pointing to a wall which was, undoubtedly, white at one point, only to find that it was now an entire array of colors from some crayons we had forgotten to put away. 

This kind of stuff happens, right? And, in the moment, if you’re anything like me, you probably can’t help but laugh. And often not because what the kids did was funny, but because our love for them is bigger than whatever they did. This is kind of a low-stakes example, but it perfectly sums up this thing we Christians talk about a lot called “grace.” And grace is the thing which unconditionally dismantles our cliché this morning, “God helps those who help themselves.” Our story this morning is a story about grace; about someone who, due to the prevailing cultural system, was to pay for the sins of herself and others, and yet was greeted with mercy. 

And talking about that system is probably a good place to start with this passage. Because the scribes and Pharisees in this passage either 1) botch their understanding of the Mosaic law, or 2) lapse into a sexist interpretation of this law. Because the law in question is from Deuteronomy 22, and it says that if a man is caught lying with a woman, bothof them shall be stoned – not just the woman. And it’s a real possibility that this woman was forced and coerced into this act by a man who knew he wouldn’t have to face the consequences because he was a man, and likely a prominent man. I mean, we know that the Pharisees and scribes don’t have any problem condemning men to death – it’s what they did to Jesus. But they didn’t do it to the man who was caught in adultery with this woman. 

And this is something that should speak loudly to us, here and now, as we’re living through the #MeToo movement. And there are two things which I think make this story even more powerful: the anonymity of the woman and the textual history of this passage. The anonymity of the woman in this story is powerful because it could be anyone; fill in the blank, fill in the history, and this woman could be anyone. Anyone with a history or past of sexual abuse and harassment can put themselves into the woman’s place and have overwhelming empathy for her and anyone else caught in that scenario. 

And the history of this story is powerful because we’re all pretty surethat this story wasn’t in the original text of the gospel, but was added much later. It doesn’t have a parallel in any of the other gospels. And that naturally lends itself to the fact that this probably didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen as described. I’m sure Jesus had discussed adultery with Pharisees before, but this particular scenario likely isn’t historical. And that can be disheartening, but it also frees this passage for more. Because even if it didn’t happen exactly as described, it’s happened a thousand times over in other times and places and contexts, right? I mean, the story of “the woman caught in adultery” probably never happened, but it happens all the time, and that makes it all the more real.

Maybe you’ve been in this situation before. Maybe you’ve been shamed because of a situation you were forced into by virtue of your gender or sexual orientation. Maybe you’ve been shamed because of your nationality or your status here. Maybe you’ve been shamed because you can’t quite buy into the stuff we talk about here at church. Whatever it is you’ve been through, let me just say that there are no prerequisites for God’s grace. You don’t need to be trying to “help yourself” out of a situation you didn’t put yourself in in order to receive God’s grace. God gives grace freely and generously and without any stipulation. And that’s exactly what happens here. 

They ask Jesus what they should do with this woman, in light of the Mosaic law, and Jesus does something really odd. He bends down and begins writing with his finger on the ground. Now, a lot of ink has been spilt over trying to figure out what Jesus wrote on the ground. Some people reference Jeremiah 22 and how it talks about the names of those who will not inherit the kingdom being written on the ground, and others reference Exodus 31 and how it talks about the tablets with the 10 commandments being written with the finger of God and others say that it’s not important whatJesus wrote, but that it proves he was learned enough to know how to write and that’s the point to be taken away.

The alternative interpretation I would like to offer, however, is: who cares? Why is this a point of discussion? Yes, it’s a fun detail to debate and try to nail down, but it’s not anything that changes the outcome of the story. If anything, it’s distracting because the outcome, the solution, to the story is what should really concern us. Or, better yet, maybe just as the woman in our story is anonymous and can stand in the place of every person who has been abused, perhaps the words Jesus wrote on the ground are left undisclosed because we’re supposed to supply them in whatever context we find ourselves playing the role of Jesus in this world. 

Maybe we need to write down that “no matter how a young woman is dressed, she’s not ‘asking for it.’” Maybe we need to write that “victims who come forward have nothing to gain and have everything to lose.” Maybe we need to write down that “women are not required to pay for the sins of men.” Maybe if we did that; maybe if we called things as we saw them, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable, the people trying to condemn those who are vulnerable might start to walk away. That’s what happens in our story. Jesus tells the crowd of scribes and Pharisees, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, and one by one, they begin to walk away. 

And after they’ve all left, there’s this moment between the woman and Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees are gone, there’s nothing stopping Jesus from telling this girl what he really thinks of her now that they’re alone and he asks if no one has condemned her, and she says no, and he says “neither do I condemn you.” How many times have you needed to hear that in your life? 

How many times have you felt ashamed or dirty or guilty because of something you’ve been through or maybe a choice you’ve made and you just need someone to say, “you know, I just don’t care.” It’s easy to be condemned (regardless of whether or not you’re guilty of anything), which makes it easy to condemn others (regardless of whether or not they’re guilty of anything), which, in turn, makes it easy to be condemned again, and that’s just a vicious feedback loop. The only way to shut that down and kill the feedback loop is grace. 

And we often botch the order of how this should be happening, right? Because, more often than not, we like to say “they need to ask my forgiveness before I forgive them,” or “you have to give respect to get it,” or “God helps those who help themselves.” But what you’re really doing there is putting the wagon before the horse, and this story is an excellent example of what I mean. Whether or not the woman was guilty of something, she didn’t do anything to merit Jesus’ grace. She didn’t “help herself” before she was helped by God. No, notice what Jesus says here: “neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” 

The woman’s action did not warrant Jesus’ giving, and her receiving, of grace. No, Jesus’ grace is what calls for action from the woman. Put another way, our good works in the world don’t facilitate grace – grace is what facilitates good works in the world. God doesn’t require us to help ourselves before he helps us. God showers us with love and grace and mercy regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. Paul says that God gives us “grace upon grace.” Imagine a world in which we sought to give grace upon grace; with no strings attached, no desire for recognition, no precondition or qualification, no expectation that people had to do anything to earn it. There probably wouldn’t be very many poor people. There probably wouldn’t be very many hungry people. There probably would be a lot less war and violence. I don’t know how many of you have been following the economic war being waged in Yemen right now, but there are hundreds-of-thousands of children who are starving to death because nobody can afford food. Yesterday, 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters were killed by a mass shooter in Pittsburgh. 

When I heard the news of the shooting in Pittsburgh yesterday, I thought about the 20thcentury Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. He has this quote that says “Jews are called to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith.” Jesus was a Jew. That’s what Jesus did, and that’s what Jesus calls us to do. Take that leap of action; choose to forgive this time, choose to give grace this time, all without the expectation of anything in return. When we give grace and love and forgiveness to a world that desperately needs it but doesn’t deserve it, we participate in the life and work of Jesus, and that is our ultimate calling. 

So, here’s your homework. There’s someone in your life who needs your grace. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s your spouse, maybe it’s a coworker or a friend. Whoever it is, and whatever they did, think about what Jesus did for this woman and the kind of world Jesus longed for and put down that rock you’re clenching in your hand. Throw grace instead of throwing a stone this time; kill the feedback loop of condemnation. If you do that, and if you keep doing that, I guarantee your world will start to look a little less like that of the scribes and Pharisees, and a little more like Jesus. 

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