The Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today is John 7:53-8:11. A consortium of powerful men are seeking to bring down Jesus, to put him in his place, to end his career. They set a trap, and show that they are entirely prepared to destroy an ‘expendable’ woman for their purposes, to the point of literal death if needs be. They bring before Jesus a woman whom they claim has been caught in the very act of committing adultery, to see if Jesus will defy the Jewish law, which they argued called for a death penalty in such circumstances, or defy the Roman law, which did not permit the occupied Jewish people to exercise the death penalty: will Jesus be a traitor to his heritage, or an insurrectionist threat? Of course, despite the fact that it is not possible to commit adultery on your own—this woman is not accused of masturbating—no man is brought to this trial-by-mob.
Jesus takes his time, refusing to respond, allowing the full weight of the injustice to settle on the scene, before standing up to them, looking them in the eye, and saying, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ This is not a general observation. There are clear sins being embraced here, including the intent to bring false testimony against Jesus, the act of bearing false witness against the woman, the intent to kill. One by one, the accusers are shamed into backing down.
What disturbs me is how often, these days, I hear people take Jesus’ words—let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at [insert name here]—to silence any voice that exposes the hypocrisy and power-games of those in positions of power, usually men. “We’re all sinners, who are you to judge another?” And this is bullshit, the absolute anti-Christ position. Jesus’ response in this episode is a devastating critique, one that ultimately contributes to his own extra-judicial trial and execution. We all live with the consequences of an unwelcome gap that exists between us and others, coming between even our closest relationships—we are all sinners, whose lives are as much shaped by sin as by love and goodness—but we do not all seek to manipulate others for their destruction and our gain in some zero-sum gain. Jesus throws his stones, not at the woman—whom he refuses to condemn, and releases into a new life—but with the precision of David flooring the giant Goliath.
There is no neutral position.