Hands: Forgiving Hands
Pastor Morris Brown
March 11, 2018
During this Lenten season, we’ve been sharing a worship series entitled, Hands. In this series, we’ve been looking at some of the things Jesus did with his hands as a way to learn what God wants us to do with our hands not only during the season of Lent, but in every season of our lives. What have we’ve learned so far?
Well, we’ve learned that Jesus used his hands to pray. We’ve learned that Jesus used his hands to heal. And, we’ve learned that Jesus used his hands to express righteous anger. Today we want to consider the fact that Jesus used his hands to forgive. To help us do this, I’d like us to look at the story we just read from the gospel of John.
It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman who “was caught in the act of adultery.” Before we explore this story and its meaning for our lives, however, there’s something you need to understand. Namely, if you look in your bible you’ll find that the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in brackets or italics. Or it is set off as a footnote at the bottom of the page. That’s because this story is not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of John’s gospel. Why is that?
Well, some scholars say it’s because early Christians were worried that Jesus’ gentle treatment of the woman in this story might be seen as Jesus “sanctioning adultery.” Others suggest that it’s not included because early Christians were embarrassed that the story made no mention of the man who was also guilty of adultery. Still, others suggest the story was part of oral tradition that later Christians thought it was too important not to be included in the bible. So, they put it in John’s gospel. Which one is right?
I don’t know! What I do know is that because this story is not in the earliest manuscripts of John, my New Testament professor in divinity school wouldn’t discuss the story in class. And a number of pastors still refuse to preach on it. Yet, there it is! The church decided to keep it in the bible. And so, I want us to look at it today because the way Jesus used his hands to “forgive” the woman in this story has a lot to teach us about ourselves, our God, and who we are called to be.
The story begins when some Scribes and Pharisees “bring” or as the original Greek says, “forcibly drag” a woman into Jesus’ presence. Then, turning to Jesus they say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Mosaic Law demands that we stone this woman to death. What do you say we should do to her?”
Well, this puts Jesus in a pickle. For if he allows the woman to go free, they will accuse him of disobeying the Law of Moses. On the other hand, if he approves of killing the woman he will forfeit his reputation as a friend of outcasts and possibly risk trouble with the Romans for authorizing capital punishment, which Jewish leaders were not allowed to do. So, what does Jesus say to this poor woman’s accusers?
Well, at first, he says nothing. Instead, he simply kneels down. He kneels down beside the woman, while her accusers stand over her. Then, using his finger, we are told Jesus begins to write on the ground, which by the way, is the only time that the gospels mention Jesus writing. So, what did Jesus write? Lots of people have speculated about that. Some scholars suggest that he was just doodling; buying some time while he figured out how to answer the question. Others say he was writing down the sins of those who were indicting the woman for her shortcomings – perhaps in an effort to make them squirm. Others wonder if he was scribbling a message to the woman. Words to encourage her so she would not lose hope, words like: “You are not alone. Be Not Afraid. All will be well.”
We don’t know. What we do know is that he eventually looked up and said, “Let those of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” And when the woman’s accusers heard his words, the text says, “They went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Leaving the woman and Jesus - alone.” But the story is not over. Instead, it says Jesus knelt down a second time, next to the woman, and wrote something else. What did he write this time? “Do Not Be Ashamed! You are forgiven! You can begin again!”
Again, we don’t know. What we do know is that he eventually stood up and said, “Woman, where are you accusers? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one.”
So, Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
It’s a beautiful story! So, what can we learn from it? What do the forgiving hands of Jesus say to us?
First, the forgiving hands of Jesus remind us that we are all fallen, broken people.
Think about it. The Scribes and Pharisees drag a woman caught in the act of adultery before Jesus. They want Jesus to condemn her. They want him to have her stoned! But, what does Jesus do? He kneels down, writes on the ground. Then he looks up and says, “Let anyone among you who is WITHOUT sin cast the first stone!”
Jesus reminds them, and us, no one is perfect. He reminds them, and us, no one is without sin. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, “In big ways and small ways ALL of us, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”
Of course, this was hard for them to admit. And it can be hard for us to admit as well. I’m reminded of the story of the preacher who was walking down the street when he saw a group of boys huddled around a puppy.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“We’re having a contest to see who can tell the biggest lie!” the boys said.
“Why are you having a contest to see who can tell the biggest lie?” the preacher replied.
“Well,” the boys said, “the one of us who tells the biggest lie gets to take the puppy home!”
Shocked, the preacher said, “Boys! When I was you age I never, ever told a lie!”
Hearing this, the oldest boy in the group turned to the others and said, “Give him the dog!”
Sometimes it’s hard, even for preacher, to be honest with themselves, with others, and with God about our brokenness. Instead, we tend to do what the Scribes and Pharisees in the story did. We project our sin, our brokenness, and our dark side onto other people. We accuse them. We judge them. We say, “Look at them. Look at what they’ve done.” So, we don’t have to turn the light on ourselves. We’re like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip when Linus says, “Lucy, why are you so anxious to criticize me?”
Lucy responds, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people's faults.”
To that Linus snaps, “What about your own faults?”
Lucy, in a self-righteousness tone, responds, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”
Jesus would not allow the Scribes and Pharisees to overlook their own faults, sins, shortcomings. And he won’t let us do it either. Instead, when we are judgmental, accusatory and critical of others he kneels down. He uses his finger to write in the sand, then says, “Before you judge someone else you might want to take a look at our own life. You might want to acknowledge your own shortcomings. You might want to take the log out of our own eye.” Why? By doing this we’ll become more compassionate and less judgmental to people. Or, at the very least, we will put our stones down and walk away.
So, the first thing the forgiving hands of Jesus remind us of is this: We are all broken, fallible, sinful people. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. And by acknowledging this we can be more compassionate and forgiving toward others who’ve fallen.
Second, the forgiving hands of Jesus remind us God is not a condemning, judgmental God, but a God of compassionate and grace.
The Scribes and Pharisees saw God as a God of rules, of regulations. Do this, keep these rules and you’ll be accepted or loved. Do that, break those rules and you’ll be rejected or damned. So, they drug the woman caught in adultery before Jesus and essentially said, “She broke the rules. Now, punish her!”
They remind me of the little boy who kept telling his teacher that his family was expecting a baby at their house. One day, the little boy’s mother let him put his hand on her tummy to feel the baby move. The boy seemed confused, but he didn’t say a word. Instead, the next day he stopped talking to his teacher about the baby. After a few days, the teacher became concerned. So, she sat the little boy down and said, “Tell me. What became of that baby you were expecting your house?”
The boy burst into tears, and said, “I think Mommy ate it!”
The Scribes and Pharisees saw God as a God who was waiting for people to make a mistake, break the rules, falter and fail so God could EAT THEM UP! But, Jesus gives them and us a different image of God. Instead of punishing the woman caught in adultery he says, “Where are your accusers? Is there no one left to condemn you? Then, neither do I!”
For Jesus, God was not a God of condemnation, but a God of compassion. God was not a God of guilt, but a God of grace. God was not a God who is waiting to eat people up, but a God who wants to pick people up! And if we want to be like God, we need to pick them up too!
As the great 18th century preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher once said, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” That’s true! For when we’re compassionate and forgiving people, we become like the God who created us. The forgiving hands of Jesus remind us we have a God of compassion and grace.
Finally, the forgiving hands of Jesus remind us that whatever we have done, however big a mess we may have made of our lives, despite our faults and failures, with God’s help, we can begin again. And, we are called to help others do the same.
Jesus looked up at the woman and said, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Then, neither do I. Go, and sin no more!” Go and sin no more. I think this is a particularly important part of the story to pay attention to. For you see, it reminds us that Jesus was not soft on sin. He did not discount the fact that this woman, like all of us, had made mistakes and created a mess of her life. He knew that when any of us think, say and do things that are not healthy for us, it keeps us from being the person God created us to be. We become people that are destructive to ourselves and others – it causes pain and heartache in our lives, in the lives of people around us, and in heart of the God who created and loves us.
Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus was soft on retribution. Instead of condemning and punishing this broken woman, he essentially says, “You are forgiven. Now, I offer you a new beginning, another chance, the possibility of a new path, a new life. Take it!”
Some of you, who are as old as me, remember when Richard Nixon was the President. Even if you’re not, many of you probably know that because of the Watergate scandal Mr. Nixon had to resign from office and leave the presidency in disgrace. What you may not know is this. A few years after Richard Nixon’s presidency when Jimmy Carter was president, former senator Hubert Humphrey died. Mr. Humphrey was a popular senator and very loved on Capitol Hill. So, a memorial service was held for him in the rotunda of the capitol building. Well, as Washington’s elite gathered to pay their respects to Mr. Humphrey, Richard Nixon, who had not been to Washington since his resignation walked into the rotunda. Embarrassed by his record, it is said that Mr. Nixon stood off to the side. Nobody would go over to greet him or talk to him. He was completely ostracized.
That is, until Jimmy Carter walked into the room. When President Carter saw Nixon standing there by himself he immediately walked over to him and smiled. Then, he extended his hand in welcome and friendship. Newsweek magazine later said, “That simple act of compassion changed Richard Nixon’s future.” Richard Nixon later said, “When President Carter extended his hand as a gesture of forgiveness and welcome that day, it brought me out of the wilderness of despair.”
Desmond Tutu says, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Jesus knew that! So, he offered his forgiving hand to the woman and invited her into a new future. Jimmy Carter knew that! So, he offered his forgiving hand to Richard Nixon and invited him into a new future.
So, here’s the thing. If we have sinned, made mistakes or made a mess of our lives, Jesus offers us his forgiving hands to remind us that with God’s help we can begin again. But, Jesus’ forgiving hands also remind us that if we know people who’ve sinned, made mistakes and made a mess of their lives, we are called to offer them forgiving hands. We are called to remind them that they can begin again, as well.
Jesus’ hands were forgiving hands. He used them to remind us we’re all broken people, that we have a God of compassion and grace. That no matter what we or anyone else has done, we can all begin again. Thanks be to God for hands like that!