“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This thought is often given as rationale for casting any type of public moralizing aside. Evidently, we cannot completely shake off our bequest from a Christian worldview. Ironically, this moral conviction is often given with the reminder that all morality is a private matter and not for public enforcement. But if all moral convictions are a private matter, why is this very conviction itself not kept private too? Why is it publicly enjoined?
When I ask citers of this verse if they are aware of the context in which these words were uttered, it is often unknown. One said it had to do with the woman in adultery. I asked if he was aware of what prompted that imperative and to whom Jesus aimed those words. There was silence. Significantly, the entire confrontation came about because the Pharisees were seeking to trap Jesus into either explicitly defending the Law of Moses or implicitly overruling it. The whole scenario was a ploy, not to seek out the truth of a moral law, but to trap Jesus.
Fascinatingly, Jesus exposed their own spiritual bankruptcy by showing them that at the heart of law is God’s very character. There is a spiritual essence that precedes moral injunctions. So when we vociferously demand that only the one without sin may cast the first stone we also need to grant credence to God’s character in numerous other pronouncements. But for some, sin is not even a viable category. This selective use of Scripture is the very game the questioners of Jesus were playing. When the law is quoted while the reality of sin is denied, self-aggrandizing motives can override character. Thus, in our spiritually amputated world, the art of obscuring truth has become a science in courtroom and political theatrics.
Herein lies what I believe the crucial death of our characters. There is no transcendent context within which to discuss moral theory. Just as words in order to have meaning must point beyond themselves to a commonly understood real existence, so also, must the reality point beyond itself to a commonly accepted essence. Otherwise, reality has no moral quotient and moral meaning dissolves into the subjective, rendering it beyond debate. Only the transcendent can unchangingly provide fixed moral worth.
But this death of the transcendent comes with a two-edged sword, both for the skeptic and the Christian alike. Yes, the law has moral value, but not as a means for shrewd lawyers to play deadly word games, minimize immorality, and kill the truth. At the same time the law has spiritual value so that we do not destroy the truly repentant individual. The grace of God abounds to the worst in our midst. Hidden in the odious nature of our failures is the scandalous secret of God’s forgiveness. When the prodigal returned, the anger he faced was not the father’s but the older son’s who failed to understand how marvelous was the grace of his father. Throughout history, God’s way of dealing with the reckless has disclosed how dramatic are God’s ways. We must allow for such possibilities. “My son was dead, but is now alive.” Death lay in the wanderings of the passions and the seriousness of wrongdoing. Life was spelled in true repentance to return and “sin no more.” But let us take note. Forgiveness is offered in full recognition of the heinousness of what is being forgiven.
On the contrary, when words, consequences, and transcendent contexts have died, a pigsty awaits. Only if we remember our Father’s address can we know where to return for forgiveness and love. But if we insist upon arguing as quick-witted political power-mongers or legal wordsmiths with no spiritual context, we may kill both law and love. This, I am afraid, is the abyss over which we often hover.
Yet I am confident that as precipitous as the edge seems, God has always been in the business of rescue. The truth is that as human beings we all fall short. Our only hope is in God’s ways, through which forgiveness and responsibility come in balance. There is indeed another bridge, one on which a body was broken so that a path was made that we might cross over and live. In that cross lie both judgment and mercy. The Judge of all the earth cannot be fooled by shades of meaning, nor was Christ obliterated by the shadows of death.
God is our help and our hope in ages past and years to come.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.