Beginning With The Oldest

Posted on May 9, 2013

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My favorite part of seeing a movie that I’ve seen a thousand times before is watching the extras.

That’s when a movie gets really good. When you love a movie and you’ve seen it a gazillion times before, like I have with, say, Tommy Boy**, the scenes become totally familiar to you. Popping that movie in the DVD player is like slipping your hand into a perfectly-fitted glove. You know exactly what the characters will say, how they’ll say it, and what the other characters will say in response. Over time, you get so familiar with the movie that you stop watching what you’re supposed to watch altogether. Then, you start noticing the parts of the movie in the background. Like the extras.

**- I mean, Chariots of Fire.

This is the best. It’s like discovering a second movie wrapped inside your already-favorite movie, a kind of Russian nesting doll of cinema. Check it out, the guy over Kevin Costner’s shoulder gets absolutely drilled in the face with a two-by-four in a second. Pay attention during this scene, one of the extras looks like he’s having a hernia. Watch the part where Daniel Day-Lewis is in the diner- there’s a guy in the background who eats an entire slice of pie in one bite.

I love that stuff. Extras are so much fun. They’re acting, but they’re doing so under the pretense that no one will ever pay attention to them, so they’re not trying super-hard. And if they are trying hard, they’re trying too hard, which is just as great. I’m convinced that the two most difficult jobs on any movie are “main star” and “person in the background trying to act like he’s talking on the phone without looking like a crazy person.” This is impossible to pull off without looking like you’re eating imaginary baby food.

I noticed something in John chapter 8 the other day that I’ve been trying to get a handle on. It’s a minor detail that John includes in the narrative. The Pharisees and law teachers capture an adulterous woman and bring her to Jesus, “trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him.” (v. 6) But Jesus turns the tables on them with his now-famous quote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

What intrigues me is the sentence that immediately follows it: “When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.” (v. 9)

Beginning with the oldest.  What’s that doing there? Is this just John, in full Ted Dekker storyteller mode, revealing his eye for the killer detail? Is it a throwaway clause, literary color to draw the reader deeper into the story? Why include it in the narrative, aside from the fact that it happened, in which case John is just being a faithful recorder of the event?

The commentaries I’ve read have not treated this detail with much regard- John Calvin alone singles it out. Meanwhile, other details have received their share of scholarly speculation. Perhaps, as some suggest, what Jesus “wrote in the dust” (v. 6,8) were the sins of the woman’s accusers, which is what caused them to flee. Maybe the Pharisees only know that she is an adulterer because they “caught” (v 4) the woman in flagrante delicto, which would make them voyeurs and thus equally sinful. But what about the leaving? Why would the oldest be the first to walk away?

Let me add my own speculation to this tradition. I’d never say this in front of a seminary professor or teach it in a Sunday School class. But I’d write it in a blog post, just for you and I to see.

I think the oldest ones remembered their sins first.

The Bible makes it clear that the Pharisees were not the good guys of Jesus’ story.  Sanctimonious, legalistic, power-hungry, among other things. But that description is also a caricature. It’s insufficiently nuanced. Because we know that the Pharisees were also people who’d dedicated their whole lives to following God. Surely their motives were not totally pure- Pharisees were an elite class, a power class, and belonging to their ranks meant possessing influence and status- but they must also have loved God, or at least wanted to honor God, at least a little bit.  And so to enter fully into the story, we must grant these Pharisee characters the privilege of being fully human, mixed motives and all.  They were God-seekers and God- worshipers who were also flagrantly God-dishonoring and God-ignoring.

I imagine it like this: Jesus speaks- “Let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone.” The youngest Pharisees feel nothing at first. Life still awaits them. They have not experienced what it feels like to fail, to really fall short. Whatever, Rabbi. I’m nothing like this whore. But the oldest men feel something different. Jesus’ words summon up the totality of their lives in an instant, much of it already gone by. Yes, they had been obedient men. But hadn’t they still needed the mercy of God? Hadn’t they still needed the sacrifices? Maybe they had not been an adulterer, but they’d lived long- long enough to accumulate their share of mistakes. Somewhere inside them, their self-righteousness implodes. He’s right. We shouldn’t be here. Turning to leave, they look over their shoulder and lock eyes with the younger ones, their younger selves. You’ll understand soon enough.

The spiritual benefit of long life is not in the accumulation of sins, but in the easy recall of the forgiveness that was needed to cover them. In our story, youth hesitated to leave, to concede, to admit that its righteousness blocked it from knowing God. But old age heard Jesus’ words, remembered its sins, and led the way in retreat.

This remembering of sins is the cornerstone of a cross-first, grace-filled Christian life. Whoever has been forgiven much, will love much. (Luke 7) That’s us- all of us- young and old alike. The trick is knowing it.  And we don’t have to wait until we’re older to start living that way.

The woman’s accusers left beginning with the oldest.

Why not begin like you are the oldest?

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