Jesus was busy teaching the crowds in the temple when some Pharisees brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Jesus replied, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down and wrote on the ground. Perhaps He was giving them time to think about what he had said and the cruelty of their hearts.
Hearing Jesus’ words, they began to go away. Then Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus replied. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Why had Jesus spoken as he did to the Pharisees? Wasn’t he concerned about the woman’s lifestyle? Of course he was. What angered Jesus was the Pharisees’ motive in bringing the woman to Jesus. They had no great love for her. They really didn’t care if her lifestyle changed. They were using this woman to trap Jesus. If he had told them to stone her, the people would have wondered how one who had spoken so much about loving people could want that to happen to her. Besides, the Roman government would have reprimanded him, for he had no authority to pass out such a judgement.
How would Jesus have responded to the Pharisees had he seen that their motive was to help the woman? If they had said, “Teacher, this woman has been abused for years by many men. We have talked to her, but it does no good. Would you please heal her, and then we will see that she gets a fresh start at some meaningful work?”
The Pharisees would have seen God work, and the woman changed. The motives for our actions are all important. This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
He speaks often about our motives. Later on in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-3).
Our motives need to be constantly examined. Are they pleasing to God? Are the good deeds that I am doing primarily to impress people? Is much of our Christianity lived out on a superficial level?
But there is another part of dealing with motives. That is looking at the motives of others with whom we disagree. I learned that lesson years ago while visiting with a school administrator who had been unfairly criticized by a parent. The criticism made me uncomfortable, and I was attempting to make excuses for this man. The superintendent surprised me when he said, “I understand what my critic is saying. Obviously, we do not agree on this issue, but his motive is good. He wants the best for the boys and girls in this school district.”
In our conversation the superintendent taught me a lesson. We must judge people by their motives, not by their actions. The actions might be wrong, while the motives are pure. I have not always applied it to my life, but I never forgot it.
This does not mean that we forsake our convictions, but it makes us more understanding of those who oppose us. For example, the ELCA has just voted down the recommendation to ordain practicing homosexuals and bless same-sex marriages. Because these practices are contrary to what the Bible teaches, I was very much opposed to such changes in the official documents of our church. However, I understand the opposition’s motive, which is to love these people by treating their behavior as an alternate lifestyle, bless their unions, and ordain those who are theologically trained.
Jesus looked at the crowd assembled on the mountainside. He saw some whose motive for coming was to hear Him and to get spiritual help. His words to them were encouraging. “Continue in my teaching, and you will see the hand of God at work in your life as you trust me for your salvation and let me make changes in your life.”