Step 3: The Step Back, The Step of Perspective
Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, "The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.
John 8: 6b, 7
The Step Back occurs when we move away from an explosive situation so we can process the scene, evaluate what is actually happening, and determine a best course of action in response to the moment. It is gaining perspective.
The pericope adulterae, that section of John's Gospel recording the incident between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the woman caught in adultery is among the most debated texts in Scripture. For two millennia academics and preachers have argued the place of the narrative in John's Gospel, the authenticity of the passage, the absence of the male counterpart in the sexual sin of adultery, and what Jesus wrote on the ground after the charges were announced. Anything beyond what is already obvious in the text is little more than speculation anyway. In His providence God chose not to show us everything. So, some of the questions we've been asking are rhetorical.
My personal interpretation of this great text is more central to the discipleship making Jesus was modeling as he handled the traps consistently placed before him by the Jewish religionists. In the instance with the woman caught in adultery, the charges were being brought against the woman as a means of ensnaring Jesus. They wanted to accuse him of subverting the Jewish law. What happened to the woman in the case was incidental to their agenda. in dealing with them, Jesus demonstrated the third step of discipline to the finish line. He showed them the step back, that is, the step of perspective.
If what he had written on the ground was central to the Gospel John would have given us a verbatim translation. The writing or drawing either meant nothing, or the meaning wasn't important in teaching the lesson. In my opinion Jesus was stepping back from what was shaping up to be a very explosive situation. By kneeling and drawing on the ground, or writing, as the case may be, he was evaluating the moment, taking stock of his opponent's motives, measuring the heat of the encounter, and gaining perspective on what was taking place around him. In a tense, potentially flammable exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus was looking beyond the obvious so he could address the real problem so evident in front of him. It wasn't the woman. It was them.
Jesus stepped back to gain perspective on many occasions. He often answered a question with another question, a brilliant way to fine-tune some very disarming times. He took charge of those heated exchanges in order to shift the thinking from mere urgencies to genuinely important matters. He and the disciples moved from one confrontation to another but with the grace to address the real spiritual issues and not just those bothersome things on the periphery. His step back usually calmed the situations without compromising Kingdom truth or advancing his opponents efforts to kill him ahead of the scheduled hour.
Perspective isn't avoidance. There are certainly times when wise leaders step aside (what will be discussed tomorrow) to gain spiritual discernment or the mind of Christ about an essential matter. Sometimes we overlook an offense. It is folly to believe that most challenging situations in church or life can be solved without divine intervention or strong leadership. There are times when we have to step aside to hear God's voice on a difficult matter. But, there are also times when we need to step back to insure our perspective about the situation is the correct one.
Let me illustrate. A couple of years ago we decided to replace the pews in our old sanctuary with worship chairs. Things moved along nicely but there was some talk about it, mostly of a negative nature. Later someone showed me the nice inscribed brass labels on the end of each pew. They had been donated years ago in honor or memory of someone dear. So, we stepped back to think through the situation. Then, I called all the families that had donated the pews and asked them if they would be wiling to contribute them to a mission church in South Carolina. They all rejoiced. Imagine the thrill we all shared when the members of the Vietnamese congregation from Greenville arrived to claim their new pews. The step back in a time of potential trouble had given us another perspective. Wow.
It's a genuine leadership challenge, the discipline of stepping back to evaluate a situation or set of circumstances. Leaders are typically motivated to take some action, fix what is broken, provide solutions, and settle problems. It's one of the trouble spots in our contemporary leadership models, the alpha dog getting things done. Jesus modeled something else, however. He showed us the step back, the grace of gaining perspective so that God's plan could address the real problems, not just the ones on the surface. And, that's a need at every level of spiritual leadership today.
Tomorrow, Step 4- The Step Aside.
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