Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. Its very quiet and still down here by the river in Hereford at this time of the morning. Even in the centre of the city, if you wait patiently enough there is all sorts of wildlife. Last week there was a muntjac deer in the garden. From here you can see the occasional otter and there’s always the palace hedgehogs. The key to seeing these things is patience and careful listening.
That doesn’t come naturally in our frenetic society. Most of our communication lends itself to broadcast mode rather than listening. We’re particularly prone to this if we consider ourselves to be an expert. Several times while leading Alpha courses during my curacy, I ‘ve been shaken out of expert mode by a comment from one of the guests. They may be new to faith or even of none, but bringing fresh eyes to a Bible passage can lead to the profoundest insights that leave you wondering why you’ve never noticed that before.
We think of the word proclamation as being all about declaring from a place of power and confidence, but that doesn’t seem to be the way Jesus saw it. Jesus was the greatest teacher that ever lived, but often its enigmatic, prompted by questions and not at all didactic. He sets up scenarios and questions and invites people to come to their own conclusions. Even in situations that you think demand a directive approach Jesus is more circumspect. There is an extraordinary story in John Chapter 8 where a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus and a baying crowd demands he pass sentence on her conduct; a death sentence by stoning in her case. The obvious first question is, “where’s the bloke?” as presumably, if she was caught in the act, there was another involved. It reveals it’s a set-up that has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the case. She is just brought forward as a dehumanised exhibit, her life at risk in the process to catch Jesus out. Jesus is aware of this of course, and rather than responding directly, he stoops, and starts writing in the ground.
Many scholars have speculated as to why he did this. The most obvious explanation it seems to me, is to allow him some space to calm down. What they are proposing is cruel and outrageous, and Jesus was always angered (righteously) by injustice. The woman may have done something wrong, but this is not the way to deal with it. But I also wonder whether part of what is going on is Jesus exhibiting a deep listening to all the parties involved. This would have involved their words, the mood, the body language, the ‘corporate personality’ of the whole crowd. How he responds is of course brilliant. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. The go away one by one – tellingly, the oldest (and presumably wisest first).
An angry response would have been to loudly confront their misplaced religious zeal. In his question, Jesus goes much deeper than that. Is he finding something good to plug into even beneath the presenting anger? The invitation he offers both recognises that there is a sin committed here, but also that no-one is in a position to make the sorts of drastic judgements they were proposing. Rather than provoking more anger, he pricks the conscience. Instead of making a bad situation worse, hearts begin to get changed. A condemned woman finds forgiveness and grace. Perhaps, legalistic zealots learn to see beyond the letter of the law to the spirit and intention that lies behind it.
This is a prophetic principle for our knee jerk, social media warrior age. A principle I learned early on in ministry – unfortunately not early enough avoid some real howlers, was never to react until you have heard both sides of the story. We are very good at constructing and re-inforcing our own interpretations of reality. If we are in disputes with others, we then tend to interpret all their actions through those lenses. Christians are meant to disagree well. Part of that must be our conviction that all of us, however, disagreeable we may find each other, are made in the image of God. Disputes escalate when we lose that sense of the divine spark and stop the sort of deep listening to one another that Jesus exhibited in this story.
Sitting her by the edge of the water in the quiet all sorts of amazing things come into conscious awareness. In quiet listening to one another a similar thing happens. And who knows, if you step out of broadcast mode and deeply listen to those you disagree with, you might even hear the voice of God as I did on that Alpha course 25 years ago.