Let He Who is without Sin Cast the First Stone
June 4, 2020“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus speaks these words to a group of scribes and Pharisees who bring to him a woman caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees pose a trap to Jesus: “the law of Moses says we should stone such a woman; what do you say, Jesus?” Jesus’ response about casting the first stone silences them, and the woman goes on her way with these parting words from the Lord: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more” (8:11).
That line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” has become a rhetorical chestnut. We use it to caution against judging someone’s sins and mistakes. The impetus is, “don’t judge So-and-So because you’re not perfect either.” It’s a fine sentiment, as far as it goes.
In our polarized political climate, the equivalent is something like, “Both sides are wrong!” Instead of refraining from judgment all together, we prefer the other side of the coin: giving a watery condemnation of both sides of a conflict. (There are always two apparently.) We say ‘both sides are wrong!’ as though this is wisdom, as though we are offering a mature and nuanced moral perspective.
We are doing no such thing. We are Christians; we know humanity is broken. Right now in the United States “both sides” are groups of sinners who are angry and afraid. To say they are both in the wrong to some degree has all the substance of, “Looks like we’re having weather today.” To focus on the mere fact that both sides are wrong rather than the context and degree of that wrongness is an abrogation of our responsibility to form reasoned moral judgments. It also misses the point of Jesus’ words in John 8.
Jesus intervenes between the woman caught in adultery and the crowd of scribes and Pharisees precisely because both sides are not equally in the wrong. One is a woman caught in adultery; the other is a mob of would-be murderers. Surely both adultery and murder are sins, but they are not equal. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he is intervening in opposition to the scribes and Pharisees so as to save the woman’s life.
Jesus intervenes to save the life of the person who is socially, financially, and culturally weakest. He does not pretend adultery is okay; after all, his final words to her are “sin no more.” Jesus saves sinners—there’s no one else for him to save—but the focus is the saving.
It is worth noting that in his final words to the woman, Jesus doesn’t reference adultery at all. Perhaps this is because the very definition of ‘adulterous woman’ was written exclusively by men like the scribes and Pharisees. It is possible that her alleged ‘act of adultery’ was her being assaulted by a man and then not crying out loudly enough for help. (Deut. 22:23-24.) Perhaps Jesus does not reference the adultery at all because the very law she stands accused of breaking is fundamentally biased against her. The condemnation of scribes and Pharisees is the product of centuries of devaluing women’s lives, privileging male perspectives, and disproportionately punishing women for their sins.
Even if we assume that this woman’s adultery is what we usually imagine that word to mean, it is still not equivalent to murder. One is the sin of passion out of control; the other is the sin of ending human life.
When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” he is not saying ‘both sides are wrong.’ He is not flattening the two sins so that they have the same moral weight. In the drama of John 8, Jesus is condemning oppressors for the sake of saving human life that has been systematically devalued. Only then does he call out the sin of the oppressed party, and even then it is not clear that her sin is the adultery of which she stands accused.
The point is not that we’re all sinners, but that the stoning of ‘adulterous’ women is an acute evil embedded in centuries of history leading up to that moment.
These same dynamics are at work in much of our commentary on the violence erupting in our nation. We say in one breath that the death of George Floyd was a grave injustice and that the violence of rioters/looters/protestors are no better than his killer, etc. We say, “Both sides are wrong!” (Again, it’s odd that we always seem to assume there are only two sides.)
That all sides are wrong is true in an obvious way, but both in John 8 and in the contemporary United States, this sentiment has all the importance of observing the wetness of water. What is important is that, as we saw with the woman caught in adultery, the very laws persons of color are so often suspected of breaking are the products of a legal and cultural system which has for the vast majority of our history excluded them from meaningful legislative and executive decision-making.
The protests we are seeing now that turn to rioting, looting, destroying property, lighting cars on fire, throwing rocks—these are at worst sins of passion violently out of control, whereas the knee on the neck of George Floyd and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery are at best isolated sins of ending human life. More likely, they are part and parcel of centuries of racial violence that devalues black lives, privileges white perspectives, and disproportionately punishes black women and men for their (suspected) sins.
In this context, does Jesus say, “both sides are wrong?” If John 8 is any indication, our answer is a resounding no. We should instead expect to see Jesus intervene to save the lives of those who are socially, financially, and culturally weakest. Once they are safe from worldly oppression, then he names their own sins as such. “Both sides are wrong” as a perspective actually prevents justice by flattening all sins into artificial equality. Especially now, our moral discourse must resist this kind of naiveté and make reasoned judgments which account for context and degree.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” With this phrase Jesus reveals the hollow justice sought by the scribes and Pharisees for what it actually is: reinforcing the status quo to which they are accustomed; ensuring the winners continue writing history; another grab at domination.
But convicting the scribes and Pharisees of the injustice upon which their power to condemn rests is not enough, either. We must go further. The goal is not to figure out who is most in the wrong; the goal is reconciliation.
As we read elsewhere in the New Testament, whatever guilt Jesus conjures in the minds of the scribes and Pharisees is not an end in itself. As St. Paul writes, “Godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret,” (2 Cor. 7:10). The point is not for them to stay silent and ashamed, but for them to repent and amend their lives. Their penitent silence is instrumental: it allows for a new conversation to begin, one in which the woman gets to speak on her own terms.
Jesus words descend like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: they are the precondition for those who have been most afraid to gain the power to speak, and they are the precondition for those who have been most in power to receive the humility of listening. This dynamic of God’s humbling the proud and exalting the lowly is all over the scriptures. As we read in the Magnificat, for example, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:46-55.) It is the dynamic of reconciliation.
The story of John 8 remains unfinished. It stands to reason that the woman in the story is part of the same town or community in which the scribes and Pharisees live. They must somehow continue to live together after the drama of Christ’s intervention. This is no less true of the United States today. Black people. White people. Police officers. Civilians. Whenever the immediate drama of our cities dies down, we must continue to live together.
I am heartened by the actions of so many protestors, clergy, and police officers throughout our country. Officers kneeling in solidarity with peaceful protestors, church leaders and other public figures helping fill the massive vacuum of moral leadership we have in the White House, and most important, the conversations I’ve had with law enforcement officers who are members of our own church. Not a single one of them has succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying what is going on right now; not a single one of them sees this as a conflict between police and some other monolithic group; not a single one of them believes what happened to George Floyd was just; and in my conversations with them not a single one has spoken sarcastically or spitefully of all the angry people in the streets. They have too much compassion and imagination for that, and each of them takes with the utmost seriousness the badge they wear and all that it represents in the moment we are in.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” A final thought on this phrase: it changes if we capitalize “He.” When we imagine the sentence in this way, the speaker is God and the stone is the Incarnate Christ: Let He, the LORD who is without sin, cast the first stone. Hearing it in this way gives us a kind of monologue in which God authorizes His own overthrow of injustice. God, our Judge, the Holy One, holds in His hand the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the conflict we are witnessing in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery is God’s hurling the Rock of Ages through the storefronts of our principalities and powers, breaking our assumptions and shattering unearned privileges. God is the Sinless One; this is His prerogative.
What I mean with that image is simply this: we are going to get through this, but it’s going to hurt. The dynamic of reconciliation always does for folks like me who are used to being on top. Things that are dear to me will get broken. Assumptions, subtle privileges, patterns and categories of thought, types of influence. It will mean God’s taking my well-meaning questions like, “Why are they rioting? What good does it do?” and breaking them so that I can ask better ones: “What would it take for me to riot like this? How tired and afraid and out of options would I have to feel?”
Once those of us in power receive the gift of Godly remorse, once we put down our rocks and listen, once we are willing to hear from those who have been most afraid speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, once we have stopped condemning black bodies to constant suspicion and death, then maybe God will turn to the rioters and say, “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more.”
And then, little by little, the anguished cries and taught silence will give way to conversation. Telling stories. God-willing, even affection. Little by little, we will be reconciled to each other. Little by little, we will become the One Body we were created to be.