The scribes and Pharisees smelled blood. They had their victim dead to rights. She had been discovered while engaging in illicit sexual relations. Seeing this as a golden opportunity to put Christ in a rather awkward position, they quickly hustled her off to the Temple courtyard and thrust her into the midst of the people who were there. All eyes suddenly shifted to her and the man her accusers confronted. "This woman has committed adultery and we even caught her in the very act," they heatedly exclaimed to Christ. "According to the law she ought to be stoned to death." For the moment Christ ignored their acrimonious ranklings and began writing in the sand. But they continued to press Him for an answer. Finally He stood up and leveled His gaze at this impromptu vigilante group. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," He replied. With that remark, their self-righteous bluster suddenly vanished and, starting with the eldest members, they proceeded to beat a rapid retreat. When they were gone, Christ asked the woman: "Is there anyone here to condemn you?" "No man," she replied. Christ's next response was quite revealing. "Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more." "Now wait a minute!" we might say. Here was a woman caught in a serious moral sin, probably found wrapped in the arms of her lover in some back bedroom and that's all Christ did about it? Even by modern standards He had every reason to throw the book at her. But instead He just gave her a simple injunction which might be paraphrased, "Don't do it again." Unlike the spiritual posse that dragged the woman in for justice, Christ saw much further than the outward, physical effects of her misdeeds. At this stage of the game, what really counted was the inward condition of her heart and mind all outward appearances to the contrary.
A Matter of the Heart
The same could be said for two kings of ancient Israel, David and Saul. To the casual observer living in that day, it would have been easy to conclude that Saul was the more righteous of the two. He was very zealous when it came to religious ritual, burnt offerings and sacrifices (I Sam. 13:9-10; 15:15). He liked to be seen in the company of God's prophet Samuel (I Sam. 15:30-31). Saul created the illusion of righteousness before the people. David, on the other hand, could readily have been found wanting and unfit for public office by today's standards. He took sacred bread from a religious shrine (I Sam. 21:6) and was even accused of "indecent exposure" by his wife (II Sam. 6:20). On a more serious plane, he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then in a calculated, cold-blooded move, had her husband killed to further his own covetous, lustful purposes. On another occasion 70,000 of his countrymen perished in a plague when he presumptuously numbered the nation of Israel (II Sam. 24:15). Ironically, God described David as a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22; I Sam. 13:14), while he rejected Saul as king of Israel (I Sam. 15:23)! Unlike the average observer, God saw much more than met the human eye. "The Lord does not see as man sees," God told the prophet Samuel. "Men judge by appearances but the Lord judges by the heart" (I Sam. 16:7, The New English Bible). In this regard, David's spiritual cardiac membranes weren't lined with several layers of case-hardened steel. When confronted with his sins by Nathan, David quickly and deeply felt the pangs of genuine remorse and wholeheartedly repented (II Sam. 12:13). Saul, by comparison, despite all his masterful attempts at putting up a good front, miserably failed when it came to impressing God. Repeatedly he sacrificed spiritual principle in favor of ritualistic expediency. And even when this shortcoming was brought to his attention, he stubbornly insisted that he had been right all along (I Sam. 15:20-21).
The Problem with Stiff Necks and Stony Hearts
Stubbornness was also a major reason why the religious leaders of Christ's day couldn't accept His message. A major part of it centered around the need for change (repentance). And that was the one thing the Pharisees and scribes were not about to do. They were much more concerned with clinging to comfortable rituals which gave the illusion of righteousness. By contrast, people whom we might classify as the "undesirables" of that society had much less difficulty responding to what Christ had to say. Christ Himself described this rather paradoxical situation in pointed language to those who were least willing to change. "Tax-gatherers and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you," he told the unresponsive scribes and Pharisees. "For when John came to show you the right way to live, you did not believe him, but the tax-gatherers and prostitutes did; and even when you had seen that, you did not change your minds and believe him" (Matt. 21:31-32, The New English Bible). Today, the individual Christian can fall into the same trap as Saul and the Pharisees if he begins to equate righteousness or the absence of sin with such things as times, cycles and dates, technical points of doctrine, dress and dietary codes, or length and/or frequency of personal prayer and Bible study. While these things can certainly help, of and by themselves they are not esoteric keys to the Kingdom that will somehow guarantee perpetual grace and favor with the Almighty. If a person's righteousness is based on outward observance rather than inner conviction he could easily be thrown into a state of spiritual disequilibrium when changes take place in his most cherished points of practice. If the individual then insists on retaining his outward formulas to the letter, like some kind of spiritual security blanket, he could end up like the Pharisees and scribes who found it difficult to make any kind of meaningful response to the message Christ brought. God is looking for the individual who is willing to admit he has been wrong, not one who is too self-righteous to ever be willing. The man who is hung up about his outward righteousness may ultimately end up being the last one to really get the message.