On sinning no more…

'Stone Sculpture' photo (c) 2010, Lauren Tucker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

How’s that working out for you? 

The "go and sin no more" thing? 

Because it’s not going so well for me. 

I’ve known Jesus for as long as I’ve known my name, and still I use other people like capital to advance my own interest, still I gossip to make myself feel important, still I curse my brothers and sisters in one breath and sing praise songs in the next, still I sit in church with arms folded and cynicism coursing through my bloodstream, still I talk a big game about caring for the poor without doing much to change my own habits, still I indulge in food I’m not hungry for and jewelry I don’t need, still I obsess over what people say about me on the internet, still I forget my own privilege, still I talk more than I listen and complain more than I thank, still I commit acts of evil, still I make a great commenter on Christianity and a lousy practitioner of it. 

But Jesus pours out his mercy, staying the hand of my accusers again and again and again.  I go, stepping over scattered stones, forgiven, grateful, and free. 

I go, but I do not sin no more. 

Do you? 

They were doing the “biblical,” thing you know—the religious scholars and leaders who surrounded the woman caught in adultery that day. They probably had Leviticus 20:10 at the ready:

“If a man commits adultery with another man's wife--with the wife of his neighbor--both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”

 They wanted to see if this Jesus fellow who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes and who touched the ritually impure, could be tough on sin. So they picked a clear-cut sin with a clear-cut consequence—a biblical slam dunk— and passed around the stones. 

“The Bible says we should stone this woman?” they challenged Jesus, “What do you say?” 

Would he be so foolish as to contradict God’s Word? It would be the ruin of this ministry! 

I wish we knew what the carpenter scribbled in the sand that day. Lists of names? Lists of sins? Something about how God desires mercy over sacrifice? Inscrutable doodles meant to redirect the crowd’s judgmental gaze? 

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus finally says before crouching to the earth again, the God who formed us out of dust covered in it. 

The gospel notes that it was the oldest in the crowd who left first. They knew. 

One by one, the religious elite dropped their stones and walked away. Seems the sinning no more thing wasn’t working so well for them either. 

Woman, where are they? Jesus asks after they have gone. “Has no one condemned you?”

“No sir.” 

I imagine she was still trembling. 

“Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” 

It’s one of just two times in his recorded ministry that Jesus said this—“go and sin no more”—and I don’t believe for a second he expected this woman to do such a thing...at least not forever, at least not for good.  

He knew she was not so different from the religious leaders who surrounded her, not so different from you and I.  He knew that hers would be invisible stones, the kind she’d grip tighter each time she saw the man who once shared her bed but not her public humiliation, each time she heard the whispers of her neighbors or the loud, pretentious prayers of the men who had grabbed her and surrounded her and threatened to kill her, each time she heard rumors that the person who saved her would himself be put to death. 

She would sin, no doubt. 

But perhaps she would think twice before casting those stones. Perhaps she would stop for a moment to consider the irony of becoming just like her accusers. 

We tend to look down our noses at these ancient people with their purity codes regulating everything from the fibers in their clothes to the people they touched. But we have our own purity codes these days—people we cast out from our communities or surround with Bible-wielding mobs, labels we assign to those who don’t fit, conditions we place on God’s grace, theological and behavioral checklists we hand out before baptism or communion, sins real or imagined we delight in taking seriously because we’d like to think they are much more severe than our own. 

“Let’s not forget that Jesus told that woman to go and sin no more,” Christians like to say when they're afraid this grace thing might get out of hand. 

Lord have mercy.  

Of all the people in that story, we’ve gone and decided we’re the most like Jesus.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point. 

We’ve missed the point when we quote the Gospel of John like the Pharisees quoted Leviticus to justify a gathering mob. 

We’ve missed the point when we use it to condemn rather than convict.  

We’ve missed the point when we turn this story into a stone.

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See also: "Breaking Bad and the Evil Within Us All" 

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UPDATE: I made a few changes to my depiction of Jesus' response to the woman based on Matt's suggestion below in the comment section, which you should definitely read. Grateful for your feedback. 

 

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How to follow Jesus…without being Shane Claiborne (repost)

This week turned out to be crazier than I’d planned. Today I’m headed to Nashville to shoot the book trailer for A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The next stop is Jackson, Tennessee to speak at the First United Methodist Church women's conference.  In addition, I’ve been reading—and LOVING—your entries for theWoman of Valor essay contest. (Remember, you have until tomorrow to submit yours!) So today I hope you’ll enjoy this repost from 2011, taken from the “most popular” pile. Enjoy! 

Transient

So I’ve recently discovered that my Christian faith tends to fall into a sad and predictable cycle, complete with five phases:

Phase 1: My commitment to Jesus is primarily an intellectual one.  He is an idea I believe in, not a person I follow.  

Phase 2: I read through the Gospels again and realize that Jesus doesn’t want me to simply like him; he wants me to follow him.

Phase 3: I buy the latest Shane Claiborne book, read it in two days, and resolve that following Jesus means selling all my things, sleeping with the homeless, and starting a monastic community. I begin looking into the cost of apartments in inner-city Nashville.

Phase 4:  I remember that I have a job, a mortgage, and a spouse (who hasn’t read Shane Claiborne).

Phase 5:  Heavy with guilt and overwhelmed by the insurmountable nature of my own convictions, I give up and revert right back to Phase 1. Following Jesus, it seems, just isn’t realistic.  

This cycle has been repeating itself for about three years now, but I think I may have figured out how to stop it…or at least make the ride a little less bumpy. 

It seems to me that the real problem occurs between Phases 4  and 5, where—upon facing the reality of my actual life and my actual responsibilities—I not only abandon Shane Claiborne’s way of following Jesus, I abandon following Jesus altogether. In short, I make the perfect the enemy of the good. I become paralyzed by my own idealism. 

No more. 

[...keep reading...]

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Women of the Passion, Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints Jesus

When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection.  This is the first installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. The final installment will run on Easter Sunday. 

They say that smell is most powerful sense for bringing back memories—something about the olfactory bulb in the brain’s limbic system and how it forever links the scent of freshly-cut lavender to the security of your grandmother’s guest room.  

Scent, unlike anything else, brings us back. Scent reunites the senses of taste, touch, sight, and sound to place us, at least for a moment, in a time past. 

So it is strange that in the most aromatic of the Passion stories, our collective memory fails us. 

We know there is a woman. 

We know there is an anointing. 

We know there is expensive, perfumed oil. 

We know there is a protest. 

But when it comes to the details of the woman’s anointing of Jesus, accounts vary. 

Matthew and Mark describe an unnamed woman from Bethany who, while Jesus dined in the home of Simon the Leper just days before his death, anoints his head with expensive ointment to the chagrin of the disciples at the table, who grumble that her offering might be better spent on the poor. 

John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who bathes Jesus’ feet in perfume and wipes them with her hair. In John’s account, it is Judas who chastises Mary for her waste. 

Luke writes of a “woman of the city, who was a sinner,” who bathes Jesus’ feet in a mixture of perfume and tears, wiping his feet with her hair and kissing them with her lips. In this story, a Pharisee  condemns her, noting that “if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 

Whether these accounts represent one event or two, or possibly even three, has been the subject of speculation for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the writers of Scripture, who are so careful to name and distinguish the Twelve, but who often blur the Women together. The Scholars Version note to Mark 14:3-9 states: "… It must be unintentional irony when Mark has Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of a woman whose very name escapes him."

But the account most commonly tied to the Passion is that of Matthew, Mark, and John:

Just days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples were eating at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they were reclining at the table, a woman, who John identifies as Mary of Bethany, approached Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages. Mary broke the jar, pouring the perfume on Jesus’ body. 

While John writes that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head.  Both actions carry important symbolic meaning. 

In the ancient Near East, the act of anointing signified selection for some special role or task. Kings were often anointed with oil as part of their coronation ceremony, often by a prophet or priest. The Greek word Christos, Christ,” is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.”  And so this anonymous woman finds herself in the untraditional position of priest and prophet. In the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, it makes perfect sense.  

Anointing the feet, however, models service, discipleship, and love. In this sense, John’s account is more personal and raw.  In a culture in which a woman’s touch was often forbidden, Mary dares to cradle  the feet of Jesus in her  hands and spread the oil across his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair. Rather than measuring out a small amount of oil, Mary breaks the jar lets it all pour out.  She’s all-in, fully committed, sparing no expense. The oil she may have been reserving for her own burial, or the burial of a loved one, has been poured out generously, without thought of the future. The humility of this action foreshadows the footwahsing that is to come. Later, Jesus would imitate Mary by washing the feet of the Twelve, telling them to do the same. 

But in the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus sees something else at work. He interprets the woman’s act of worship as preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a  waste of money, Jesus responds by saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” 

Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a while, but the Twelve were having none of it. When Jesus told Peter that   “the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die; then he will be raised,” Peter responded with such an impassioned protest that Jesus rebuked him with “get behind me Satan!” In another instance, Jesus spoke ominously of his death, and the disciples respond by debating who will be the greatest in the coming kingdom. And in another, James and John miss the point entirely by responding to Jesus’ prediction with requests to sit at his right and left hand. Clearly, the Twelve struggled to conceive of a kingdom that would begin not with the death of their enemies, but with the death of their friend. I suspect this is why they complained about the “waste” of money exhibited by the anointing. They imagined that their ministry with Jesus would continue for months and years to come. You can sense the sadness in Jesus’ words when he reminds them, yet again, that he will not always be with them, that he is preparing for the most difficult days of his life. 

We cannot know for sure whether the woman who anointed Jesus saw her actions as a prelude to her teacher’s upcoming death and burial.  I suspect she knew instinctively, the way that women know these things, that a man who dines at a leper’s house, who allows a woman to touch him with her hair, who rebukes Pharisees and befriends prostitutes, would not survive for long in the world in which she lived.  

Surely a woman in this society would understand this better than a man.

Perhaps this is why the women stayed by Jesus’ side after so many of the Twelve betrayed him, denied him, and fled from him in fear. This was the course of things, the women knew. They would see it through to the end. 

And so the woman of Bethany becomes the first of Christ’s disciples to acknowledge his impending death. For this, Jesus praises her in unparalleled terms. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” 

What a remarkable thought—that at every communion, every Easter service, every cathedral and every tent revival, from Israel to Africa, to Europe to China, this woman’s story should be on our lips, right along with Christ’s.  

And yet, while we break the bread and drink the wine, we rarely pour out the oil.

Jesus wanted us to remember, but we have forgotten. We aren’t even sure of this woman’s name.

Perhaps we should bring back this oil, this costly perfume, and make it part of our Eucharist.  Perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, the scent of it might trigger our memory.

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