Here's what I wrote for my newsletter article this week:
I have a stone on my desk. I got it a long time ago, so the writing on it is faded a lot. But you can still just barely make it out, if you look closely and squint.
It says, “First.”
I keep it close to me, to remind me of the story from John, chapter 8, where Jesus calmly addresses an angry mob saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
I keep that stone on my desk because there are times that I really, really want to metaphorically hurl it in the direction of some person with whom I am angry, or who I feel is in the wrong somehow, or even sometimes who is just bugging me. Most of the time I can catch myself before I let loose; a glance at the “first stone” on my desk will remind me of that shocking story in John 8.
That story is shocking not because an innocent woman was about to be stoned by a crowd. It is shocking precisely because the woman really was guilty of the sin the crowd had accused her of, and yet Jesus himself did not condemn her. Earlier in the Gospel, John has reminded us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the word, but to save it (3:17).
And so, if Jesus himself did not come to condemn guilty people, but to forgive … maybe we should try to follow that lead. It’s funny, isn’t it? We can see ourselves in the crowd, we can see ourselves as the woman forgiven; but how often do we see ourselves as Jesus? How often do we realize that Jesus doesn’t condemn the would-be stone throwers, either?
To borrow a well-worn cliché, it’s either forgiveness or it’s not. Or said another way, forgiveness is either there for everyone or no one. Now, that would be a shock!
As usual, I've been thinking about it a lot since I wrote it. What came to mind this morning was this - we often use forgiveness as a schlocky self-help technique, and remain blissfully unaware of the raw power of grace. How often do we say, "You've got to forgive others ... " or "The hardest thing to do is forgive yourself, but you have to ... " so that YOU will feel better?
It is as if my act of forgiveness is intended only to erase my emotional response to some event that has offended me, and make everything my-pretty-pony shiny and happy again. The more I think about it, the harder it is to swallow.
Our model for forgiveness is Jesus. He did not forgive others for his own benefit. His forgiveness was given so that the one who was guilty would be set free to live a new life. His oft repeated nudge to "go and sin no more" at the end of so many episodes reveals his desire that the one who has been forgiven is now expected to live differently. Sin matters to Jesus, and his standard operating procedure is not to beat people up with how sinful they are, but to forgive them and then release them to do better from here on out.
Another thing I'm thinking about - I absolutely LOVE to throw stones at stone throwers. You know what I mean? When I percieve that stone throwing is happening, I am happy to wade into the fray, if not outwardly, at least in my mind, and often in long gripe sessions to the captive audience of my wife! But in this story, Jesus does not throw any stones himself. His desire seems to be to set the would-be stone throwers themselves free to live a new life, as well.
That's hard for me. Because there are times, when harm is being done, that we have got to stop it from happening. And there are times when the most effective way to stop it is to directly confront the one doing harm. And yet there is no denying that, in John 8, Jesus' approach was effective; he prevented the stoning from happening, got the crowd to confront their own sinfulness, and charged the woman to go and live a new life. Not that I am surprised that his approach worked; he is, after all ... well ... Jesus.
I don't have a pithy conclusion to all this musing. It's just musing, working things out, trying to figure out what questions I need to ask. I would love to hear any thoughts that you might have about forgiveness, condemnation, passing judgement, and the power of grace. To be continued...
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