Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy






[First, a word to those of you who may be wondering.  You are the ones whose Bibles place these verses in small print at the bottom of the page or at the end of the gospel of John or in brackets.  You may be wondering what the deal is, given that we all know the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Therefore, we generally have assumed that this passage was a regular part of the Bible, Just like any other.


Here’s the short answer, and it will likely be more than you wanted to know, but, as they say, in the interest of full disclosure. . . .  In the most ancient manuscripts of Scripture, this passage is not always present.  The Bible you hold reflects the widely understood consensus of what Scripture is.  You don’t have to worry about it because that consensus is so broad.


But once in a great while we find a passage about which there is some disagreement.  Some manuscripts contain it; others do not.  The question becomes, what do we do in an instance like this?  And you have the result—some translations contain it without question; others make it a footnote or an endnote; others—like the New International Version—leave it where it is but place it in parentheses.


Which leaves us with the question—what do we do with these verses?  The easy way out is to follow the leadership of whatever translation you happen to be reading.


But here’s what I think.  One, through the years the church has been unable to shake this story: it’s part of our history.  Two, the story seems so consistent with the behavior of the Jesus we know.  Three, through the centuries this story has been helpful to the church in worship.  As a result, I understand the arguments about whether or not to include these verses in the main Bible text, but I have no compunction about using the text, though I thought you should know.]


“Early in the morning Jesus came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.”


Jesus set up shop for the day.  Word was murmured through the city that Jesus was back, and He was at the temple.  As the crowd congregated, He took His seat.  In our day we preachers assume our places behind the pulpit.  In His day the rabbis sat before their flocks.  Speaking of good stuff—Jesus was about to begin when there was a fracas.


How do you detract attention from Jesus?  You create a distraction and the scribes and Pharisees had a major distraction.  Remember, it was early in the morning but, somehow, these religious leaders had taken into custody a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they foisted her on Jesus.  They threw her down in the midst of the temple teaching and goings on.


It was as though they were saying, “Jesus, you take yourself to be a rabbi, do you?  You have come to the ultimate house of worship and presented yourself as a teacher of the Law?  Is that right?  You purport to have some kind of divine authority.  Well, how about this one, Jesus?”


Every eye is on the woman, her accusers, and Jesus.  And the boldest and most ferocious of the lot exclaimed, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery,            in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what, then, do you say?”


Deep, deep pause as virtually no one takes a breath.


“Jesus, you wanted a chance to teach the Law.  You’ve got it!  Now what do you say?”


There are some things about this scenario which are not in doubt.

First, the scribes and Pharisees knew the Law.  Leviticus 20:10 says, “If a man commits adultery with another’s wife, that is, with the wife of a fellow countryman, both adulterer and adulteress must be put to death.”  Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must be put to death.”


“Put to death” meant stoning.  Stoning was a method of execution during which a group of people, usually peers of the guilty party, threw stones at the condemned person until he or she dies.  Death by stoning was prescribed in the Old Testament Law as a punishment for various sins.  Both animals and people could be the subjects of stoning (Exodus 21:28), and stoning seems to have been associated with sins that caused irreparable damage to the spiritual or ceremonial purity of a person or an animal.


The scribes and Pharisees had the Law, the truth, on their side.  The woman was caught in the very act of adultery—about that there seems to be no question.  What the Law said about this circumstance—about that there seems to be no question.


The scribes and Pharisees lay the matter, in its bluntest, most unadulterated manner, before Jesus.  What they were saying was this — “Jesus, do you deny the law?”  And to add to the moment, they implied, “So, Jesus, if you dare to challenge us, are you willing to set yourself up as a greater authority than Moses?”

They folded their arms over their robed chests and awaited the answer.  Jesus, they believed, had no way out.


They must have had some reason to think Jesus would let the woman off.  Otherwise, they would not have raised this ruckus.  They had no honorable reason for interrupting teaching in the temple.  As the Scriptures tell us, they were attempting to test, to trick, to catch up Jesus.  Still, they would have followed the rule of law.
The Law required there to be two independent witnesses in a capital case.  Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 make that clear.  But the chances of catching an adulteress “in the act” were highly unlikely, unless she was set up, and such a setup would make the “witnesses” a party to the event.


In other words, technically, the scribes and Pharisees had the Law on their sides.  But everybody’s hands were dirty, too—the woman, the witnesses, the scribes and Pharisees.  These guys dragged a guilty woman into a house of holiness and demanded action.  The gathered congregation was the grand jury and Jesus was the defense attorney.


They demanded, “What, then, Jesus, do you say?”


Jesus looked as though he were buying time.  He stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.

What He said they did not reveal and we do not know.  But it bought Him little time, for they persisted in asking Him.


Have you ever been in a situation where any answer you might give would be misunderstood?  We all know the classic question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  To say yes would indicate that you used to beat your wife.  To say no would indicate that you still beat your wife.  As I said, there is no good answer.


And if you tried to qualify your answer, you would surely get lost in the maze of caveats, qualifications, explanations.  You could not win.


Jesus bent to write in the dirt: the scribes and Pharisees persisted.  But when the time had come, Jesus straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you,             let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”


Jesus’ answer was larger than their question.


They knew the Law, stated the Law, demanded that the Law be fulfilled.  Jesus took one step behind or beyond the Law, asking what purpose the Law served.


The Law is designed to keep the people in line, to keep them honest, to keep them honoring God.  Adultery does not honor God.  But neither did their dishonestly bringing the woman before Jesus for judgment.  They didn’t want the woman judged: they wanted Jesus judged.  This whole scene was not about arighting the sexual mores of the people.  It was about destroying Jesus.


So Jesus took one step back from the scene and drew everyone into it.


You say this woman is guilty and so she is.  But is your reprehensible behavior, scribes and Pharisees, without sin?  You created a fence: you set things up so not only would she sin, but she would be caught.

When she was caught, she would become an exhibit before Jesus.  This whole story was not about her—she was the set-up to get at Jesus.  And as a result, we have a whole collection of people who have shown themselves sinful before God.


No wonder Jesus would say, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”


In their heart of hearts, they knew no one was off the hook.  Their sins may have differed from her sin, but they were sins, nonetheless.  They could try to hide their sins in their cloaks of righteousness.  I mean, there they were in the temple, attempting to right wrong and argue for righteousness.  But they were caught in the net of sin, too.


They were no dummies: Jesus knew that, too.  Having drawn them into this awareness of sin, He stooped down again and wrote on the ground.  He had made His case: He had nothing more to say to them.  He had not addressed their question directly, but He had addressed a much larger question.  What do all of us do with our sin?  Has any one of us earned the right to act as judge, to act like God?


While Jesus wrote on the ground, the scribe-Pharisee collective, seething in their failure, grudgingly recognizing the truth Jesus spoke, shuffled their well-shod feet.  The younger ones, out of deference, waited for the older ones.  And the older ones made their moves toward the exit.


As angry as they were, they had no answer for Jesus.  They couldn’t tell the congregation why they had not brought in the male participant in this act.  Look, the woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.  Takes two—where was the man?  They would have had no answer for why they didn’t bring in the male guilty party.


As they turned heel to leave, they would no answer for what to do with the woman now.


Does anyone ever consider what they thought about her now?  They were leaving her to her own devices.

They did not care about her: they were deserting her.  She had merely been exhibit a in their little charade.

They had no answer about that.


They were unwilling to respond to Jesus’ challenge.  They were left with no option except to leave the room and go on their way.  Before long, in what was an interminable silence, the space was emptied of the religious leaders.  The crowd that had come to hear Jesus sat stock still in silence.


Jesus and the woman, in an inglorious pile on the floor, were alone at the front, when Jesus, straightening up for the second time, said to her, “Woman, where are they?  Did no one condemn you?”


“No one, Lord.”


Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way.  From now on sin no more.”


And there you have it.

Jesus never denied her sin.  Jesus never denied the words of the Law.  Jesus simply reminded everyone what this was all about.  We are all—every one of us, every last one of us—we are all sinners in need of grace.  And Jesus showed grace.


We are so very good at pointing the finger, and the world gives us plenty of opportunities.  Just ask the increasingly non-Christian public what they think of us.  More likely than not, they will proclaim how judgmental we are.  And this is not to say we should not know sin and be able to name it.  Jesus told the woman to go and “sin no more.”


There are plenty of black-and-white issues.  On the Sunday closest to the forty-third anniversary of Roe v Wade, and in a culture that gives less value to life, we should acknowledge abortion as sin.


But those of us who have not participated in that sin or murdered or stolen are no less sinners.  We should think twice when we want to hoist a stone at someone.  The apostle Paul said it most directly in Romans 3:23.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  We all deserve punishment; we stand under the judgment of God.  Every last one of us has failed God miserably when it comes to obeying Him and honoring Him.


We all deserve the judgment that is reflected in the law.  But through Jesus, in a gift  both incredible and undeserved, we are the beneficiaries of grace.


“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”


“God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world but that the world might be saved.”


“God showed His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”


The purpose of the law was to help us know sin as sin.  The law is our teacher: it calls us to accountability.

The purpose of the law was not to make us suffer; its purpose was to awaken us.  Its purpose was to call us to redemption.  The purpose of God’s work in history—from the beginning to the end of Scripture—is redemptive.  And Jesus embodied that.


One day, at the temple, in front of a waiting crowd, a pitiful, adulterous woman, and the teachers of the law, Jesus made that a vivid, unforgettable point.  Sin is still sin; but grace is grace, and grace is larger than sin, because Jesus is larger than sin.


Grace is grace


A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel.  He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.


One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city.  LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.   Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.


But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.  “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”


LaGuardia sighed.   He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you.   The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.”


But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket.  He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.  Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”


So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.




We do not know what happened to this poor woman.  Is it possible that the scribes and Pharisees found her later and with less fanfare executed their judgment?  It’s possible.  We don’t know, but this we do know.  In the midst of it all, Jesus made a point we dare never forget.


No one of us is sinless; every one of us is in need of grace; and Jesus is the giver of grace.