Breaking the Law, Loving Instead

(Sermon given at Holy Redeemer Catholic Community, Sunday, March 17, 2013)
On March 22, 1824 an incident took place in Madison County, Indiana, which came to be known as the Fall Creek Massacre. Six white men murdered nine Seneca and Miami Indians and wounded another. Among the nine dead were three women and four children. The six men were apprehended and tried and some were executed. One of the men named John Bridge Jr. was sentenced to death by hanging for his part in the massacre. He was to be executed on June 3, 1825. His father and uncle were also to be executed that day.
John Bridge, Jr., along with a large crowd, witness the hangings of his father and uncle as the crowd waited expectantly for a pardon from the governor. With no sign of a pardon, a sermon was preached as the crowd waited expectantly. Finally, John Bridge, Jr. was lead to the gallows and the rope was lowered over his head. But as the men waited for a signal, a cheer arose from the back of the crowd.
A stranger rode forward and looked the condemned man in the face. “Sir, do you know in whose presence you stand?” Bridge shook his head. “There are but two powers known to the law that can save you from hanging by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead; one is the great God of the Universe, the other is J. Brown Ray, Governor of the State of Indiana; the latter stands before you…” Handing over the written pardon, the governor announced, “you are pardoned.”
In an instant, a terrifying, hopeless situation became the door to new life. John Bridge Jr. returned home, settled down, opened a dry goods store and died of natural causes–fifty-one years later!
I tell you this story so I can ask this question: Can you imagine the fear that must have gripped the heart of that young man as he watched his father and his uncle die, knowing that he was next? Can you imagine the terror as he was led onto the gallows and the noose was placed around his neck?
The sinful woman in the gospel story knows that feeling. As she is led trembling into the presence of Jesus, she knows in her heart that she is about to die a horrible death by stoning. However, her path has brought her into the presence of Jesus, and everything is about to change.
First, a little background information on the text itself. In most Bibles, we find that John 7:53 to John 8: 11 has either a footnote or is bracketed. That’s because NT scholars are virtually unanimous in declaring that this part of the Gospel of John is not part of what John actually wrote—it was added centuries later by an unknown scribe. If we were fundamentalists, we would have a serious problem, but since we’re not, this gives us a change to look briefly at the area of biblical studies called “textual criticism”. Some scholars think the story really happened, was circulated and later added to John’s Gospel.
Maybe they’re right: this story certainly fits our notion of what Jesus would have done in a situation like that. And even if it’s technically not “Scripture”, it still reveals the truth contained throughout other parts of the NT.
For second century listeners, the most remarkable part of the story is that Jesus exalts himself above the Law of Moses, changes its appointed punishment, and reestablishes something we have come to call “righteousness based on grace.” This is probably why this story was preserved in the first place and it is an echo of other NT teachings.
The woman is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. In verses 4–5, the scribes and Pharisees put Jesus to the test. We have seen this before in the Gospels; it’s a familiar story line. Here’s what they say, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Clearly, this is another test to see if Jesus will screw up.
The Law said, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die” (Deuteronomy 22:22; see Leviticus 20:10). There is already something fishy going on here because only the woman is brought forward, and I think I am correct in stating that adultery is a sin that requires at least two people. But in typical sexist fashion, it is of course the woman who is blamed—so we have to ask just how committed the scribes and Pharisees are to following the Law of Moses. Or is the Law merely a pretext for their prejudice against Jesus?
Verse 6 makes explicit what their motives were, and so we don’t expect a great deal of justice: “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They were using the woman, using the Law to undermine Jesus.
In verse 7, Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” This is a great line, but we all agree it’s not a recommendation on how to run a criminal justice system. Think about it: no one could ever be put on trial until a sinless judge and jury could be found! This is why I said earlier that Jesus is going to reestablish righteousness built solely on grace. To this point in the story, there is no grace, no humility, no compassion, and because of these things, there is abiding in the Law either.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus standing against the Pharisees’ view of the law and saying in effect, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13; 12:2). Or: “If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” (John 7:23). In other words, “the Law is fulfilled in one word: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus forces them to see their own misuse of the law—and they all walk away. The point is not that judges and executioners must be sinless. The point is that righteousness and justice must be founded on a gracious spirit, and when they are not, cruelty and hypocrisy are the logical outcome.
When they are all gone, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (recall John 5:14). He doesn’t tell her that adultery is alright, but he wants her to act with fairness and compassion not because she fears execution, but because she has been saved by grace. So, it doesn’t matter if the story belongs in John’s Gospel or not. It doesn’t matter if the story actually happened or not. The truth of the story stands regardless. This is the pervasive message of the New Testament. Jesus continually exalts himself above the Law but only to show us that God’s interest in us is based on the same experience of amazing grace.
The story points us to the message of the whole New Testament: We are called to be holy as God is holy. Sin harms us and divides us, so we are called to turn away from it. But pursuing holiness without a profound experience of grace in our own hearts produces hypocrisy and cruelty. Jesus shows us, again and again, the God’s grace can overcome everything, even our most entrenched attitudes and thoughtless actions.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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