Until last summer I could edit World in semi-ignorance; managing editor Nick Eicher edited our Mailbag page, and I generally saw only the letters that appeared in print. Last summer, however, my wife Susan took over that task, which means all the mail-electronic, fax, and traditional-makes it to our home.
I will now have the blessing and curse of taking a look at about 8,000 letters to the editor this year, if the current flow continues. We are reading them all but right now have room to print only about 400. Susan makes the selection with the goal of publishing an accurate representation of what comes in.
Many of the letters are well-argued and biblically accurate, but some writers fall into the trap of taking one or two Scripture verses out of context and trying to construct an entire theology around them. The number of such letters spikes up any time World runs a piece critical of one of President Clinton's actions, and almost always the same two gospel passages are cited: Matthew 7:1-2 and John 8:1-11.
Both passages are wonderful. The Matthew verses are, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." The passage in John tells of the Pharisees bringing before Jesus a woman caught in adultery and asking if she should be stoned; Jesus writes on the ground and then says to the Pharisees, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
The letter writers quote those verses, without noting the context, and then stipulate that it is unbiblical to criticize President Clinton, or virtually anyone else. We are to make positive comments and, if we cannot do that, we are to hold our tongues, pens, and computers. But let's look more closely at these two passages, both in their immediate contexts and in the way they fit against Scripture as a whole.
Matthew 7:3-5 shows the kind of judging assessed in the two verses preceding: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? ... You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Christ is not knocking honest criticism-how could he, unless he wanted to contradict God the Father and deny the validity of his laws, commands, and tough words toward those who disobey? He is attacking those who ignore or cover up their own sins in order to go after others hypocritically.
Hypocritical, of course, is a synonym for pharisaical-and Jesus in the John 8 passage was outwitting the Pharisees who were trying to trap him. Scholars debate whether that passage should be in the Bible at all-the earliest manuscripts do not include it-but the passage, interpreted in the light of other Scripture and not in a postmodernist way that suggests nothing is worth condemning, is consistent with the other condemnations of hypocrisy found throughout the Gospels.
Here's the situation: Pharisees and teachers of the law were mis-stating God's law to Jesus, just as Satan liked to do. They were not producing witnesses to adultery as the Old Testament requires. They were not bringing the man involved in the act before Jesus (OT law was tough on both parties). They were saying that Moses commanded stoning a woman caught in adultery (not so, unless she was a betrothed virgin). The legal questions of Christ's adversaries were not sincere ones, and Jesus' response should certainly not be taken as a license to disobey God's law. Instead, the passage shows how Jesus always went to the heart of the matter, not justifying sin but pushing people away from it. He shamed the Pharisees into abandoning the entrapment they had pursued. He told the woman that since there were no witnesses against her, neither he nor anyone else stood in the way of the command he now gave her: "Go now and leave your life of sin."
The passages from both Matthew and John point us not to lowering our standards but raising them, both for ourselves and then for others. Defending or minimizing past sin does not lead to changed behavior; President Clinton and all of us need to pray for the grace to confront sin squarely.