As Lent begins, the Lord is calling us together to examine our lives before him, to receive his forgiveness and grace and to go on our way renewed and not sinning again.

 

Read the readings set for Ash Wednesday John 8: 1-11

 

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

 

A certain churchwarden, who was not enamoured of the vicar, was shocked to find that he was planning a wedding during Lent. And, like chilli peppers on a wound, flowers were to be allowed in church at the event. Not waiting to discover the poignant circumstances that made the wedding desirable at that particular time, the next Sunday the warden created a huge scene. Embarrassment and anger followed, which took many weeks to calm down. Surely our Lenten observances, precious as they may be, are not reasons for a bust-up?

 

Jesus is teaching in the Temple, surrounded by the crowds who followed him everywhere. Is his popularity part of the cause of what happens next? His opponents would have said that they were defending the faith, but how truthful were they in that?

 

Some scribes and Pharisees appear with a woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery. There is no doubt that she broke the law; the question is what to do about it. But the aim of these men is not to consult Jesus; they are testing him, “so that they might have some charge to bring against him”.

 

What, then, is the test? According to Leviticus (20:10) and Deuteronomy (22:21-24) adulterers should be stoned to death. But the religious leaders knew well Jesus’ emphasis on compassion to sinners and outcasts. So here is the trap. If Jesus upholds the Law of Moses he will contradict his own teaching and lifestyle and be seen as a fraud. If he contradicts the Law he will be guilty of leading people away from divine religion, and should himself be disciplined.

 

Jesus doodles silently in the sand. Perhaps, as he doodles, he is meditating on the meaning and purpose of the Law and religious rules. The churchwarden wanted to uphold the rules and thought a major showdown was the way to achieve it. The scribes and Pharisees used Moses’ Law as a means to trap Jesus. But for Jesus, salvation is the main concern and indeed the true purpose of the Law: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved” (John 3:17). So, without disowning Moses’ Law, Jesus turns the tables, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

 

This response, which is both godly and politically astute, catches the accusers like a sharp stone striking the heart. One by one they melt away. The story of a woman caught in adultery has become one of men caught in hypocrisy. Jesus too declares that he will not condemn her, but adds the command to sin no more. God’s grace is not only a matter of forgiveness of past sins, but a call out of God’s deep love to men and women to sin no more and live a new and pure life.

 

This story raises the subject of law and religious observance. The warden could not see beyond maintenance of the Lenten tradition. The scribes and Pharisees were not at all concerned about a woman whose life was in a mess; they thought of her as a worthless adulteress and made her a mere tool in their schemes. In both cases enthusiasm for the letter of the law came before respect for people and the desire for their well-being and salvation. Look now at Jesus. Yes, he is concerned for the Law of Moses, he frequently quotes it; but he is much more concerned that all people, precious in God’s eyes, may be afforded God’s grace and salvation.

 

Whatever our Lenten observances, let’s be quite clear that they are not tools of our self-aggrandisement or manipulating others. Although our traditions may be worth guarding passionately, public rows are unlikely to further that cause. Instead we should approach Lent with serious joy, looking forward to growing closer to God. And while in Lent it can be helpful to look inward, should we not also look outward to the salvation of others?

 

And finally we do well to remember that no matter how carefully we may observe Lent we are all ultimately in the position of the woman in the story – in need of the grace of Christ. Indeed, as we hear God’s forgiveness declared today, do we take it for granted? Or is it to us, as to the woman, the word of life and the reprieve from a death sentence?

Ash Wednesday and Lent

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