This week the BBC aired a story about Brunei a former British protectorate in South East Asia who have legalised the stoning of sexual offenders for both adultery and same-sex relations.
Westerners, both secularists and Christians find it abhorrent. And indeed it is. The thought of someone being pummeled and crushed to death with stones and rocks, a mob killing, is just too horrific to contemplate.
In our passage today from John 8:1-11 we read about a woman caught in adultery. A group of Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus wanting to stone her as a trap to put Jesus on the wrong foot. And so the news story from Brunei connects us with some of the violence in our own scriptures that sometimes we overlook.
I was fascinated this week to learn that stoning as a punishment is not found in the Muslim Qu’ran (although it contains other methods for capital punishment). But in contrast our own Bible contains numerous references to stoning in the Laws of Moses for various crimes and offenses:
- adulterers, Deuteronomy 22:23–27,
- Sabbath breakers, Numbers 15:32,
- cursing God, Leviticus 24:10–16
- engaging in idolatry, Deuteronomy 17:2–7,
- children who "rebel" against parents, Deuteronomy 21:18-23, and,
- a woman pretending to be a virgin when getting married without this being the case, Deuteronomy 22:13–21
- (among other offenses...)
Are these verses in the Bible the God inspired, inerrant Word of God? If so why don’t we enact them today? If according to the Bible those acts of barbarism were supposedly commanded by God in the past, why consider them to be unacceptable and abhorrent today? Did God really command these barbaric acts? Was God, the God we have come to know in Jesus, really complicit in such acts of violence and terrorism?
If one is going to answer those questions with integrity then it is going to require that we come to a deeper and more complex understanding of the Bible. The Bible is not always a simplistic book with neat and easy moral answers. At times the Bible contains some very dubious moral injunctions and examples, apart from stoning adulterers, rebellious children and Sabbath breakers:
- In Exodus 21:20 provision is made for a slave owner to beat a slave within an inch of their life, without consequence, as long as the slave recovers within a few days. If the slave dies then there are consequences although these are not specified. Today we would call this a gross human rights violation.
- In Psalm 137 the Psalmist says of his Babylonian enemies and captors “Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks”.
- In 2 Kings 1:23-24, a group of boys taunt the prophet Elisha saying “Get away baldy! Get away baldy!” The prophet Elisha curses them in the name of the Lord and a bear comes out of the woods and mauls them to death.
- In 1 Samuel 15 God apparently commands Saul to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them, killing man, woman, infant, nursing child, ox, sheep, camel and donkey. When Saul failed to completely carry out God’s orders. God takes the kingdom away from Saul. Today, we would call this kind of story a genocide.
What are we to make of passages like this? Are we to take them literally as the inspired, inerrant word of God?
It is very popular today to assert that the Bible is completely inerrant. But that is a very recent assertion. Christians only began to speak of the Bible as inerrant in the past 100-120 years and it is only in the last 20-30 years that that has become a wide-spread assertion. Martin Luther the great reformation leader did not hold that belief. In fact, I believe that Martin Luther, gives us some very helpful alternative views on Scripture.
Firstly, Martin Luther did not believe that the whole Bible without qualification was the word of God. He believed that the Bible contained the word of God. Much like at Bethlehem Jesus was held in a manger, a feedbox for animals. Luther taught that the Bible is like that manger, because it contains God’s word. The manger itself was ‘human’. It was made with boards and nails that were crooked and bent. Ultimately for Luther, the Word of God was a person, the person of Jesus. It was through Jesus that Luther believed that God had spoken most clearly. He even went on to say quite explicitly that the Bible, like the manger also contained a lot of straw. In other words there is a lot of useless worthless stuff in the Bible. In this way Martin Luther did not believe that everything in the Bible was of equal value or equal authority.
A colleague of mine used to make the statement that not everything in the Bible is Christian. It sounds like a shocking statement, but it makes complete sense when you look more closely at it. There is a lot of behaviour and even commandments in the Bible that fall far below what one would regard as acceptable for a Christian today, the stoning of adulterers, and rebellious children would be some of them. Not everything in the Bible is Christian.
For this reason, this same colleague would say that we are not called to follow the Bible. Rather, we are called to follow Jesus. We need to study the whole Bible, but we are called to follow Jesus. Thank God that there are few Christians today who would think it is a good idea follow those parts of the Bible that advocate the stoning of rebellious children, adulterous spouses and Sabbath breakers.
For Martin Luther, if Jesus was to be regarded as the Word of God contained within the Bible, then Jesus is also the measuring rod with which we evaluate the rest of the Bible. One of the reasons that Christians today don’t condone stoning today is because almost implicitly, we know that Jesus wouldn’t have approved of it. It does not accord with the spirit of Jesus.
This has been a very long introduction to our text today. I would like to make a few comments on the text itself.
Firstly, interestingly, this passage was never originally part of the Gospel of John or even part of the Bible. It is not contained in any of the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts. The first time it is mentioned anywhere outside of the Bible was by a Bishop in around 225 AD. It was probably a few decades before that, at some point, some Bible copyist heard of the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, and felt that there was a ring of truth to the story. It sounded authentic and so decided to include it here in John’s Gospel so that the story wouldn’t be lost. Most Bibles today would indicate in the footnotes that the story is not included in many early Greek manuscripts. Other late manuscripts show that another copyist had a similar idea but instead included it somewhere in Luke’s Gospel.
Secondly, interestingly Jesus does not explicitly state that stoning is wrong. He just skillfully side-steps the issue. If he had explicitly stated that stoning was wrong he would have been completely discredited by the Pharisees as being a heretic because he didn’t uphold the law of God. But it is also clear that even though he doesn’t explicitly state that that stoning is wrong and against the spirit of God, the way he deals with the woman caught in adultery, with respect and compassion, implicitly, it is clear that Jesus didn’t believe that stoning was right.
Thirdly, Jesus cautions us against becoming the moral police of others. “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone”. Before we point out what we believe is wrong in others and wish to see them being punished for their crimes, Jesus urges us to clean our own houses first. Jesus advocates morality by example rather than by pointing out and policing the wrongs in others. It resonates with that teaching in Matthews Gospel (7:3-5) where Jesus tells us that before we try and take the speck of dust out of someone else’s eye, we should first take the log out of our own.
Fourthly, we see the bias of a male dominated culture. It is just not possible to commit adultery by oneself. By definition adultery requires two people. If she was caught in the very act of adultery, then where then is the male adulterer in the story. Did the other men conveniently let him off because he was a man? Or because he was a friend? Are we sometimes selective in the way we hold others to account?
Lastly, we see that in Jesus there is no condemnation (vs11 “Then neither do I condemn you”). Earlier in John’s Gospel we read that Jesus comes not to condemn but to save (John 3:17). In this story, while Jesus neither seeks to condemn or punish her, he still wishes for her to become the best person she can be. “Go and sin no more” he says to her. The word “sin” in Greek means to fall short. To sin is to fall short of all we have it in us to be. “Go and sin no more”. In other words, “Go, and become your highest and best self”. Amen.