Recently, here in Arizona, the director of the Department of Public Safety was caught speeding at 90 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic. Anything over 85 miles per hour in Arizona is considered criminal speeding, and usually brings with it a fine. After flashing his badge, the director was simply given a warning and let on his way.
Last year, one of the state representatives was caught doing 120 mph and while he claimed that he couldn’t be ticketed due to “legislative immunity” that caused quite an uproar. At the time, our governor said that no one is above the law, and that all law enforcement should consider the appropriate tickets when confronting state officials of any kind.
When the director of the DPS was basically given a warning and let on his way, our governor agreed with the decision to give him a warning because the director was “one of the good guys.”
Naturally, this caused a few heads to turn, and people asked the governor how he could at one point say that no one is above the law, and all should answer for their crimes, to now saying, “Let those without speeding sin cast the first stone here,” since the director of the DPS had effectively been given special treatment as regards the law.
Now, I’m not really hear to debate whether the director of the DPS should have gotten a ticket or not. It’s just that this juxtaposition of someone’s differing reactions to the same crime (“no one is above the law” vs “he’s one of the good guys”) and using a modified quote from what we hear Jesus saying in today’s Daily Office to defend that difference of action was just too good of an example to pass up.
In today’s gospel reading, of course, we see the leaders bringing a woman caught in the act of adultery before Jesus and saying that the law states they should stone her. Then they ask Jesus what he would do in that situation. Instead of answering right away, he bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. Then he says, “Let those of you without sin throw the first stone at her.” Then he bends down and writes in the dirt again.
Some scholars think that Jesus was writing down a catalog of sins that each of the men had committed, thereby drawing their attention to their own sin. We can never really be sure what he wrote, but we do know that it seems to have been a combination of what Jesus wrote and what he said that cause those men to leave the woman behind and not to stone her. And then Jesus simply tells her he does not condemn her, and that she should go and sin no more.
Now, the reason I found the speeding tickets so interesting is that in the Gospel, Jesus told the woman that he doesn’t condemn her for her sin, but also that she should go and sin no more. With the speeding tickets, two men committed essentially the same crime, and one was condemned while the other was not. One had to report to court, the other was let off with a warning. One was “one of the good guys,” and the other was told that “no one is above the law.”
And the justification for the difference was “let those without speeding sin cast the first stone.”
Jesus wanted the men in the adultery scenario to understand that if they were willing to convict that woman of a crime then they would have to convict themselves. The reverse is also true, if they were willing to exonerate themselves, then they should be willing to exonerate the woman. We all are willing to overlook our own faults while judging others, and we need to take these things into account when making our own judgments.
The problem I see too often with using this quote by Jesus to justify some behavior is that more often that not is used to justify the behavior of people we like; it is not used to demand equal punishment, but rather used to demand leniency for a special few. And when it is used, it essentially twists the demand that all people be held to account into an accusation that “you’re being unreasonable because you’ve done the same thing.” But when two people are given different results for the same action, then we aren’t really listening Jesus at all, because Jesus tells us that either everyone gets the same punishment, or everyone experiences the same level of grace.