In yesterday’s post–“Go And Sin No More.”–I was discussing the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Specifically, I was discussing how this story is frequently used by people wanting to push back on radical calls to hospitality. The fact that Jesus sent the woman off with the words “Go and sin no more” suggests to some that Jesus’s welcome of “tax collectors and sinners” was not as radical and scandalous as might seem.
So in my post I opportunistically used the fact that John 8.1-11 isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts we have of John. Most modern translations of the bible (even “conservative” translations like the ESV) have a footnote to this effect. In light of that, I suggested, for the sake of argument, that we imagine that this passage isn’t in the bible, or, at the very least, imagine that this passage is a bit less authoritative. In light of that imagining–and that’s all I’m asking for, a theological Gedankenexperiment–I went on to ask, where else in the gospels could you go to get Jesus saying something similar to the “Go and sin no more” of John 8.11?
Alastair Roberts suggested John 5.14. The full story:
John 5.1-15 (ESV)
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.
Jesus tells the man to “sin no more” (ESV; “stop sinning” in the NIV). Is this an equivalent passage if we lost John 8.11? Could John 5.14 lift the same theological weight as John 8.11?
My take, and this is just my take, is yes and no.
But before we get to that we have to deal with the difficulty of the text. And, truth be told, this difficulty might rule out John 5.14 as a backup for John 8.11. Specifically, on one reading of the text it seems that Jesus is telling the man that his sin caused his lameness. If that is what Jesus is suggesting we have a really difficult passage on our hands. So difficult that we’d want to take some care in deploying it. Part of the appeal of John 8.11 is that it occurs in such a great story. Perhaps the most well-known story in all of the gospels. In addition Jesus’s admonition “Go and sin no more” seems non-controversial: Don’t continue to commit adultery. Who could disagree with that?
But if John 8.1-11 didn’t exist (in our thought experiment) I can’t see people using John 5.14 with a similar zest and frequency. I find in hard to imagine that people would use John 5.14 as they currently use John 8.11: “Hey, calm down that radical hospitality, that radical welcome of sinners. Didn’t Jesus tell the lame man to ‘sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’?”
I really don’t see that happening.
That said, I don’t think Jesus is saying that the man’s lameness was punishment for his sin. I think Jesus is simply telling the man that he’s got a fresh start and that there are some strings attached. The healing, the in-breaking of the Kingdom, is not a blank check. I think Jesus is saying, “Yes, you’ve been healed. Physically you’ve been released from the bondage of Satan. But what about spiritually? Going forward if you neglect your soul there will be something worse waiting for you.” I don’t think Jesus is talking about the past, about a 38-year old sin. I think he’s talking about accountability in the future going forward.
So I don’t think we need to read Jesus’s words as saying that physical disability can be a punishment for sin. But if we don’t read the story that way we have, instead, a reading that reads pretty much the way John 8.11 reads: a strong admonition going forward to “sin no more.”
So in that sense, I agree with Alastair that John 5.14 sends the same message as John 8.11. “Sin no more.”
But here is where I think the two texts are a bit different.
What makes the argument from John 8.11 so potent is the sexual frame. The sin is clearly stated. Adultery. So when Jesus says to the woman “Go and sin no more” we know exactly what he’s referring to: adultery.
Recall again when the John 8.11 card gets played. It gets played when the radical hospitality has gotten too radical, when it’s gotten “soft on sin.” And the sins here tend to be the typical puritanical vices with sexual sins often at the head of the list. Given this, John 8.11 has some punch. Jesus isn’t soft on those sexual sins. And we shouldn’t be either.
The trouble is, Jesus did seem very welcoming of these sexual sinners. That’s what got him in hot water with the Pharisees, why the radical hospitality of his table fellowship was so scandalous and, well, “soft on sin.”
Truth be told, I do think there is a dialectic at work here. Jesus’s “neither do I condemn you” playing off “go and sin no more.” The trouble I have isn’t with the dialectic. Let me be clear about that. My trouble is that the “go and sin no more” isn’t used dialectically but as a means to undermine the “neither do I condemn you,” a means to reduce the scandal of Jesus’s eating with tax collectors and sinners. That’s what I’m objecting to, the use of John 8.11 to reduce the scandal of Jesus’s radical hospitality–then and now.
And here’s where I think John 5.14 differs from John 8.11 in this regard. In John 5.14 we don’t know what the sin was that the man had committed. In fact, if we read Jesus as I’ve suggested Jesus isn’t really talking about a sin in the past (like the woman in John 8). Jesus is looking forward. The healed man has a clean slate. But there are strings attached. Sin no more, Jesus says. And we might ask, what sins is the man to avoid?
Ah, that’s the rub.
In John 8.11 we know exactly what sin Jesus is telling the woman to avoid. Stop sleeping around, he’s saying. But what is Jesus asking of the man in John 5.14? The admonition is more vague and open-ended. No particular sin is implicated. So we are left to fill in that void. We ask, what sorts of things did Jesus condemn? How did Jesus define sin? What sorts of things got Jesus really hot under the collar? Sexual sins? The puritanical sorts of sins? Or other sorts of things?
These sorts of questions bring me back to the point of the original post. Outside of John 8.11 where do we see Jesus saying “Go and sin no more”? John 5.14 is one such place. But John 5.14 has two problems. First, it’s such a difficult text it raises more questions than it answers. But, secondly, even if those problems can be surmounted (and I showed above how I deal with them) the text is open-ended and asks us to fill in the blank: When Jesus says “sin no more” in John 5.14 what sorts of things does Jesus condemn in the gospels?
For Jesus sin is _______.
How that blank is filled in is what I’m most interested in.