Here is the text of my latest Credo article – published in last week’s ‘Newark Advertiser’
At our church we’ve been looking recently at Jesus’ dealings with people ‘on the margins’.
In the Gospels Jesus spends a lot of time with people who were outside the mainstream; the hated tax collectors, people with leprosy, the ritually ‘unclean’. His wasn’t a mission to the haves but to the have nots, those that society ostracises.
One of my favourite Jesus stories is the one where a woman is brought to him having been caught committing adultery. The religious officials who brought her are testing Jesus; the punishment decreed in the scriptures is that the woman be stoned to death. (Strangely the man involved isn’t even mentioned let alone brought for punishment).
What would Jesus do? Would he uphold the law, or would he stick to his message of love and forgiveness? Jesus’ response was brilliant; Leaning down to scribble in the sand he said “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” At that the crowd slowly melted away. None of them, of course, could claim to be without sin. And then Jesus forgave the woman, told her not to do it again and sent her on her way.
There are lots of things we can learn from this story. I’ll suggest just three.
Firstly, the scriptures aren’t to be slavishly followed. You can indeed find in the bible the law that says adulterers should be stoned to death. But I trust that no one in our society, Christian or otherwise, would think this was appropriate today. We use care, common sense and the better understanding we received through Jesus (who told us to love one another) in choosing not to take this scripture literally. We would do well to apply this approach to other outdated laws that some Christians continue to get so worked up about.
Secondly, we should remember that Jesus’ forgiveness came with the message “do not sin again.” He’s not saying “because if you do I’ll make sure you are stoned next time” – I’m sure he’d forgive her again. It’s because doing wrong things harms people and harms society; if are to truly love one another we try hard not do things that cause others hurt.
Thirdly, and very importantly, we must recognise our own shortcomings. None of us is even close to being perfect. We all do things wrong every single day (at least I do – I suppose I shouldn’t speak for you.) God will forgive us all this, but that means we should be prepared to forgive too. If someone steps out of line then we shouldn’t stand in condemnation – we should forgive. We shouldn’t talk behind their backs about what they’ve done wrong – we should forgive. We shouldn’t bear a grudge – we should forgive. How much better a world we would have if we could only do that.