Radical Grace

Of all the theological words borrowed from the Christian thesaurus by our culture at large, “grace” is the most well-known. Few hymns remain in our collective cultural memory, but Amazing Grace can still safely be used in about any setting, it’s so well known. In an age when people are looking for the radical, the anti-institutional, the paradoxical, grace should speak within our larger culture even in a post-Christian setting. I’m afraid that we’ve watered down grace and domesticated it to the extent that it no longer appears radical to us or to our culture; and in that, we’ve done a grave disservice.

I’m always amazed at just how radical and paradoxical grace is in many of the New Testament texts. Recently, I used the story of the Woman Caught in Adultry (John 7:53-8:11) to introduce the idea of radical grace in a sermon. In the story, a woman is brought before Jesus by the Scribes and Pharisees; they test Jesus by accusing her of adultery. They had caught her in the very act, the only question now was what did Jesus think should be done? Jesus, unimpressed with their accusation, bends down and starts to doodle in the dirt while they continue with their accusatory banter. He brings the process to a conclusion by reminding the accusers that in the Old Testament, witnesses had the responsibility to punish the guilty. If her accusers were really who they claimed to be, their only course was to take up stones and punish her. Having shifted the focus from the woman to the accusers, Jesus goes back to his doodling on the ground. The next time he looks up, he is alone with the woman. The “witnesses” had thought the better of their accusations and slipped away in order from oldest to youngest. With a final “Go and sin no more,” Jesus sends the woman on her way.

If you look at the passage in most modern translations (ESV, NIV, NRSV), you will see that the entire passage is enclosed in brackets. Most of the earliest Greek manuscripts (from which the New Testament is translated) don’t contain the passage, and some of those who do place it at various points in John’s Gospel or in Luke. There isn’t another story in the New Testament that displays this kind of fluidity across the early manuscripts. Often, the scribes would mark the passage with something like our modern brackets to let readers know that there was a question about the authenticity of the passage in its context. The shifting around of the passage continues well into the twelfth century. Its not a favorite passage of the church fathers who quote much of the New Testament from the second century onward. In large swaths of Christendom, the church fathers don’t cite this story until the twelfth and thirteenth century.

How do we explain this fluidity in the manuscripts into a quite late period? The story is both scandalous (an adulterer walks away with no more than a “go and don’t do it again”) and radical at the same time. The manuscript tradition appears to both try to exorcize the story (morally loose?) and cling on to it at the same time. It is a radical, scandalous, paradoxical kind of grace.

The other thing of note in the story is the whole Jesus doodling in the dirt narrative. What was he doing? It is often thought that he was writing the sins of the accusers in the dirt. I can understand why someone might want to go beyond the text to explain what happened, but the point is the text itself doesn’t tell us, and none of those thousands of scribes who passed on the passage to us knew of such a tradition.

It does seem important to me that when they bring the woman to Jesus, they say in verse 4, “this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery.” Here and in verse three, the verb “to catch” is a process and not a simple single event. She wasn’t “caught”, she was “caught through a process” (both verbs are perfect rather than aorist tense). It makes me wonder if the act of adultery wasn’t really some kind of entrapment, something that went on over time. That would also explain why the other partner in the act isn’t brought to Jesus. Just her, whom they had hunted and caught. Jesus doodling in the ground is his way of letting them know he wasn’t impressed with what they had done. From their own mouths the truth had come, they had hunted and they had caught. Jesus’ reminder that justice was about both the accused and the accusers burned into their hearts. Everyone in the story needs radical grace, but only she really understands her need. In the end, only those seeking and extending grace are left in the narrative. Radical grace is transformative, “go and sin no more” is the declaration of a new found freedom and opportunity.

Real grace has always been radical. It was in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and it still is today. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . .”