In the gospel of Matthew (9:9–13), there is a story about Jesus and a tax collector. It’s said that in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were frowned upon (more so than today). They were thought to be corrupt and were therefore treated as social outcasts.
Seeing the tax collector, Jesus says to the man, ‘Come, follow me.’ And the tax collector, who we know today to be Matthew, gets up and starts following Jesus.
How crazy is that?
And then one thing leads to another, and it’s not long before Jesus is having dinner with Matthew at his home.
While there, Matthew’s friends turn up, and they too end up sharing a meal with Jesus. But when the Pharisees (the religious leaders of the day) see what’s going on, they ask this question:
‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
When Jesus hears this complaint, he says to them, ‘Healthy people do not need a doctor—sick people do. Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.” For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners’ (Matthew 9:12–13).
You can’t argue with that!
At another time, a woman caught ‘in the act of adultery’ was brought to Jesus.
John’s gospel (8:1–11) tells us that the woman (not the man!) is made to stand in front of Jesus. Imagine just how uncomfortable and afraid she must have felt!
The men who had brought her there then ask Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?’ Jesus doesn’t answer. He just stoops down and writes in the dust with his finger. (We don’t know what he writes—John doesn’t feel it was important enough to tell us that particular detail.)
While Jesus was writing, they kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, ‘All right, stone her! Have it your way, stone her! But let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.’
And so the story concludes, with no one throwing stones.
Now, if you were a stone thrower gearing up for a good throw, just imagine your disappointment, ‘I’m not allowed to judge people anymore? What’s that about?!’ (Good question, what is that about? Why are we so quick to judge people who sin differently to us?)
Anyway, when the woman’s accusers hear Jesus’ words, the Bible tells us ‘they slipped away one by one’, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus is left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.
Then Jesus stands up again and says to the woman, ‘Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ ‘No, Lord,’ she says. ‘Neither do I,’ says Jesus.
Incredible! Neither do I condemn you.
We are not to dismiss sin. Jesus doesn’t dismiss the woman’s sin.
The story finishes with Jesus saying to her, ‘You have been set free, now go and live a life (of freedom)—a life without sin.’
So, ‘sin no more!’ is not a terrible thing to hear. There is a sinful way to live that will tear you down and bring to you (and maybe all those around you) a death of sorts. To be rescued from such a life and from the poor choices we sometimes make truly is life-giving.
But I also want to suggest that jumping straight to the words, ‘sin no more’ (or variations on the ‘sin no more’ theme) without first offering these other words of Jesus—‘I’m here because I do not condemn’—is neither life-giving, nor very helpful.
When we read through the gospels, you cannot help but be struck by who Jesus hung out with. People from all sorts of walks and all sorts of lifestyles seemed to be attracted to him.
Yes, Jesus went out and met with people, but people also seemed to make a huge effort in coming to him.
I wonder why.
At another time, a Pharisee asked Jesus to have dinner with him. Jesus, who shows no discrimination, went to the man’s home and sat down to eat. But when a ‘certain immoral woman’ (the gospel writer’s words) heard that Jesus was eating there, she turns up, unannounced and uninvited. The ‘immoral woman’ brings with her an alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. She kneels before Jesus, weeping, and her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, so she starts to wipe them off with her hair. And then she starts to kiss Jesus’ feet, and then she pours her perfume all over them.
When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus (but not the woman) saw all this, he said to himself, ‘If this man was a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!’
How dare this woman (my words now) who needs Jesus, who needs freedom, who needs to be set free, how dare she touch the one who can give her what she needs, how dare she burst into my home, and ruin my meal, how dare she assume such familiarity. Is she not a sinner, after all?
But Jesus answers his host’s thoughts, ‘Simon,’ he says to the Pharisee, ‘I have something to say to you.’ ‘Go ahead, Teacher,’ Simon replies.
Then Jesus tells him this story: ‘A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other.
But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, cancelling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?’
Simon answers, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the larger debt.’
‘That’s right,’ Jesus said. Then he turns to the woman and says to Simon, ‘Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.’ (I love how Jesus turns the table on those who claim to be righteous; but boy, I’m also challenged by it!)
‘I tell you,’ Jesus continues, ‘her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.’ Then Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Go in peace.
Have you ever thought about this being Jesus’ plan for the whole world. That all find peace, that all find freedom, that all are set free and that all are cared for? And it’s like Jesus has this expectation
that we who are well—we who have been rescued, we who have been set free—will care for those who are not.
And that’s impossible to do, if all we have in our arsenal is a stone.
So, coming back to the story about the woman caught in adultery, does she then live the remainder of her life ‘sin’ free? We do not know, but what we do know—what the Bible writers really want us to understand—is that Jesus’ forgiveness is being offered to everyone.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way: ‘God gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.’ (John 3:16-17, The Message)
Maybe this then is the better way to live: not in judgment of people who sin differently to us, or in a manner that minimises or dismisses sin, but with a forgiving heart and a generous spirit that seeks first to understand and then helps to set others free.