Whenever two followers of Jesus are engaged in a debate about showing love to all people, and whether love is love or love is sin-tolerance, invariably one of them whips out this little ditty as their trump card:
“… yes, but Jesus does say ‘Go and sin no more’, right?”
Well, sort of.
This is a quote pulled from John 8:1-11, a story of Jesus encountering a woman caught in adultery and it’s an absolute essential playlist track for people who want to appear loving, while justifying a decidedly non-loving stance, often regarding “homosexuals”, people with tattoos, or in general, folks they feel uncomfortable about.
It’s also one of the most misused, problematic, and downright dangerous Scripture soundbites in history, and here are six reasons we need to drop it from the rotation immediately:
1) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… it may not have actually happened.
If you look carefully, you’ll notice that this passage in the Bible is in italics and is heavily footnoted with the admission that this passage was not in the earliest recorded manuscripts. This means that the section was added sometime later as the Bible was being collated, and its authorship is unconfirmed. While this does not disqualify the text, or mean that it wasn’t an actual event from the life of Jesus captured by the gospel writers, there is not consensus by any means. It’s difficult enough to form a theology based on any one passage of Scripture, but this one is less secure than others with regard to reliability. Yet even if we ignore all of this and take the passage as bearing the full of weight of Biblical canon, there are quite a few other things to consider when throwing stones with it.
2) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… he also says a lot more.
Jesus was quoted as saying all kinds of things to all kinds of people in the gospels.
Sometime he confronts someone individually on an area in their lives that he wants them to change, sometimes he gives them clear direction on desired conduct, but so many other times he simply cares for them, sits with them, eats with them, serves them; without agenda or prerequisite or condition. In the feeding of the multitude for example, which all four gospel writers record, we Jesus showing compassion and providing sustenance for a crowd of thousands. He doesn’t screen them all first to find those who are worthy of the meal, he doesn’t demand some outward repentance before they can partake, and he doesn’t place behavioral conditions on their invitation.
He simply feeds all who are hungry. Love trumps theology. Actually, often love istheology.
Yes, Jesus says to one woman “Go and sin no more”, but he also says a lot more than that. It’s extremely dicey to use one phrase from the lips of Jesus, and claim that this was his only response.
3) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… he also says something else justbefore that.
In their mad rush to instruct someone else to “go and sin no more”, so many Christians conveniently leave out the fact that immediately before this, he tells the watching crowds; those would-be judges, to ‘drop their stones’, after which they do and then walk away. The true power of this story is that in the end, it is one played out between one woman and Jesus: a sinner and a Savior.
The stone throwers get no say. They do not get to step in between another human being and Jesus. They are allowed no delivering of condemnation, no administering of justice, no bringing of another to repentance. They are dismissed by Jesus.
He alone gets to tell the woman to ‘go and leave’. He alone gets to do that today, too. God speaks individually to people’s hearts. His Spirit convicts. What words He chooses to speak is not our business. Using this story as a guide, we only get to receive and to obey the direct command, to drop our stones and leave.
4) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… no one seems terribly concerned about her partner.
Adultery requires two people, at least if my understanding of anatomy holds. Yet there seems to be little concern among the stone-throwers here about the man involved, and that’s for good reason. The setting of this story is a theological trap designed to test Jesus; a Jewish rabbi who had exhausted the patience of the religious leaders, for pushing back against the prevailing rigid legalism of the day, one that often saw the letter of the law obscuring the spirit of the law. If the stone-throwers truly and purely wanted justice here, they would have brought the man to face punishment as well. Whether this was simply the case of a woman used as a religious prop to trip Jesus up, or whether there is some cultural gender bias on display we don’t know, but clearly the heart of the story here is not Jesus admonishing a sinner, it’s Jesus putting self-righteous sinners condemning another sinner, in their place. When we use this passage to police someone else’s conduct, we’re often unwittingly placing ourselves in the line of fire.
5) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… he was speaking to a straight woman caught in adultery.
Jesus was addressing something here that he had clearly defined as a sin elsewhere in the gospels. He was speaking specifically to a heterosexual person committing adultery. When he references the “life of sin” she needs to leave, he is referencing that specifically and her solely. It is an individual direction to a specific person. We can’t simply remove this statement of Jesus from its context and slap it onto to someone else, simply because we want to. It is a story placed in the gospels for a specific purpose, and that purpose is not to provide us ammunition to call out people we disagree with.
Unless you’re talking to a straight person caught in the act of adultery, you may want to rethink attacking with this Scripture. (Actually, I’m hoping you’re already rethinking it).
6) Jesus does say “Go and sin no more” here, but… we don’t know if the woman actually did, and what Jesus’ reaction was if she didn’t.
Why does Jesus tell the woman to walk away from the life she’s living? We don’t really know, because Jesus refrains from doing something most of the modern stone throwers usually do: place a penalty on disobedience. He doesn’t say “Leave your life of sin or go to Hell”. He doesn’t say, “Leave your life of sin or I will shun and reject you.” He could simply be telling her to leave, because the life she is engaging is damaging her and he is calling her to a less hurtful, more joyful path. Jesus could be speaking here as a loving shepherd as much as a threatening judge. And since we don’t get a glimpse into the woman’s response, perhaps she, like the rest of us, means well and then quickly stumbles afterward. But that isn’t the point.
Again, Jesus and Grace get the last word.
Sadly, old habits are tough to break, and this short passage will continue to be used flippantly by Christians as a brutal, vicious weapon; out of context, regardless of the questions around its authenticity, and without consideration of the intent of the writer, but I hope that you’ll reconsider your own handling of the story.
The greatest truth about this passage, is that we don’t get to wedge ourselves between anyone else and Jesus.
My friends, be very, very careful of both the stones, and the Scriptures you throw out there at people.
“Thinking Anglicans’ (a favourite blog-site of mine) blog led me to this extraordinary review of the dominical saying of Jesus, to the woman ‘caught in the act of adultery’: “Go and sin no more”. The author of this article, John Pavlovitz posits a pretty convincing explanation of the circumstances in which Jesus issues such a word of pastoral counsel.
Most often seen – at least by conservative Christians – as a ‘Word of Warning’, John Pavlovitz essays the opinion that, rather than a word of warning against a qualification for Hell-fire and Damnation, this is uttered by Jesus as a purely pastoral injunction, designed to protect her from the problems associated with casual sexual associations – that are destructive: both of her own reputation, and also of the community ethic of protection against the consequences of such illicit relations.
When trying to explain this final word of Jesus, to the woman he has just rescued from community violence; I have expressed the thought that – in view of his obvious care for her in this particular situation; Jesus might well have said, in today’s language of rebuke: “Go and behave yourself – or you’ll find yourself in this pickle again!”
It is hard for me; as a priest, who takes very seriously the plea of Jesus at His crucifixion, when he asked God to forgive his enemies with the words: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”; to believe that Jesus would be any less gentle towards a woman, whose sin was somewhat less than that incurred by Jesus’ torturers and murderers.
When we realise that Jesus once said that goodness (holiness) “Belongs to God alone” – Matt.19:17 – we begin to understand that cultic purity might be less important to God than the realisation that, without God, our delusion of self-righteousness is vain. Only ‘in Christ’ are we able to overcome our human culpability for our sins. This is why, at the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter, we can proclaim: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us – there fore let us keep the feast: Not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”.
My very favourite hymn at this time of the year is that which begins with the words:
“My sing is love unknown – My Saviour’s love to me – Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. O, who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?” (English Hymnal 86)
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand