From the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said:] “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 8:7 (NRSV) – February 11, 2014.)
A very familiar sentence from a very familiar story. I am intrigued today by the way in which Jesus carefully phrases his invitation to stone the woman caught in adultery. He does not say, “Let anyone among you who has not sinned be the first . . . .” Rather, “Let anyone among you who is without sin . . . .” As Jesus has phrased it, sin is not something done; it is a condition possessed. Those who would condemn the woman are focused on actions and behavior. Jesus turns their attention and their consciences from human behavior toward human nature.
The Greek here is complicated: the word used by John to relay Jesus’ words is anamartetos. It is a negated form of a term borrowed from archery meaning “to miss the mark;” with the addition of the negating prefix a- the word means “one who cannot sin.” In a way, Jesus is saying, “Throw a stone if you are absolutely sure that you can never miss.” “Who among you,” he seems to be asking, “is perfect?” His focus is the human condition, not on human activity, and his point is that we all share an imperfect nature; all of us can, and eventually all of will, miss. Obviously everyone in that crowd knew him- or herself well enough to know that none was incapable of missing the mark!
Are any of us? Do any of us always get everything right?
I am fascinated by the apprehension of the “human condition” in various cultures. Not every human culture believes the problem of the human condition is “sinfulness,” as western culture influenced by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, does. For example, Indian culture sees the problem as suffering; the traditional Chinese would see lack of social harmony to be the issue; Native American spirituality might focus on environmental harmony. Jesus’ invitation would make a different kind of sense in each of those contexts, but it would make sense. What I wonder is how his death makes sense, how the atonement makes sense, within these differing understandings of the basic human problem.
And I wonder if any 21st Century culture, west or east or Native American, sees sinfulness as the problem. What is the perceived problem of human existence in modern America? Boredom? Lack of meaning? Loneliness? No sense of personal value? How does Jesus’ death address that problem, whatever it is? What nature of atonement makes the act of atonement comprehensible in a new and different problematic context?
I won’t figure that out in an early morning meditation on the Daily Office, but today it seems to me that maybe this episode described by John, and Jesus’ careful phrasing of the invitation to stone the woman caught in adultery, might hold a key.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.