March 23, 2014 - Third Sunday in Lent
“Who started it?”
That’s the questions historians still debate as we approach the hundredth
anniversary of the first shots of World War I on July 28th of this
year. Every high school student (who was not too busy texting his friends that
week in world history class) knows the cause of that war was the assassination
of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist earlier that
June. Austria-Hungary then invaded Serbia in retaliation, with Germany’s support and encouragement.
So you could either
fix the blame on expansionist fervor in Serbia or on overreaction in Austria-Hungary. Or you could pin it on Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm for being too ready to
encourage a war they already wanted. On another hand, especially looking at
what Russia is up to right now, you might want to blame Russia’s long ties with
Serbia. The Russians didn’t want to let the Austrians and Germans damage their
stake in the Balkans.
Which all gives us
another suspect: France. The French were cultivating an alliance with Russia, loaning them huge amounts of money, hoping to help them mobilize against Germany. Both France and Russia told Serbia not to cooperate with an Austrian investigation
into the assassination of Ferdinand, thus exacerbating that crisis and helping
provoke the war.
In Germany today, however, only 19 percent of Germans now believe their nation was to blame
for the first world war. From their point of view, Great Britain is at least
one of the guilty parties. The British were too fearful of Germany and were looking for an excuse to go to war.
So it goes. We spend
so much time trying to figure out whom to blame when evil happens, just like
the first two human beings. Last week we heard how the first human experience
of shame followed Adam and Eve’s sin of disbelief and disobedience. And we saw
that shame at the beginning of our text today, with them hiding from God,
afraid and embarrassed because they were naked. But then in verses 12 and 13 we
see the beginnings of a sport which is older than any on earth, the “blame
We sin, we do wrong,
and then rather than accepting responsibility, we find someone else to blame.
We always want someone to blame. Hasn’t that become the major question
of the investigation into Malaysian Airlines flight 370? They have checked the
background of every crewmember and passenger. Were the pilots tied to some
plot? Was it faulty or deliberately misleading directions from ground control?
Was it poorly packaged batteries that caught fire in the cargo section? Let’s
find who’s to blame.
Adam, of course, did
what males often do. He blamed a woman for his failure. Notice that in verse
11, God’s question to them was, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you
eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam only got around
to answering that second question after he had shifted the blame. He says, “The
woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
That “I ate,” comes after he’s found a way to put the responsibility on someone
Adam blamed Eve.
That’s the simplest way to see what he says. Men have been doing it ever since.
Women are the “weaker sex,” illogical, swayed by emotion, leading men into all
sorts of traps and problems. An abuser says, “I wouldn’t have hit you if you
hadn’t made me so angry.” A rapist claims a woman tempted him beyond control by
the clothes she was wearing. A man caught stealing from his employer explains
he had to do it to keep up with his wife’s demands for clothes and jewelry.
Adam blamed Eve and so
many of us men still do that. Maybe we’re not abusers or rapists or thieves,
but how many of us have at least thought that we might be happier, or more
successful, or drink less, or eat less, or at least be a little nicer if it were
not for a woman in our life?
But Adam is not just
blaming the woman. What does he say to God about Eve before he even mentions
that she gave him the forbidden fruit? He calls her “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” That’s right. It’s not even subtle. Adam is blaming God
for giving him this woman in the first place. It’s ultimately God’s fault,
either for not making the woman better or for putting her there in the garden
in the first place.
Eve might have turned
around and pointed at Adam, figuring out some way to fix the blame on him.
Maybe if he hadn’t been off fishing or watching college basketball or whatever
he was doing when the serpent came around, she wouldn’t have been so bored and
lonely that she listened to the snake. But Eve turned her finger of blame in
another direction, aiming it at the serpent, “The serpent tricked me, and I
Long before Flip
Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones made it a catch-phrase in the early 1970s,
Eve came up with “The devil made me do it!” She was not to blame. She was
deceived, bamboozled, tricked by a force she could not resist. She couldn’t
help herself. This serpent showed up and sweet-talked her and before she knew
what was what, she had done it.
The stereotype is that
women are more subtle than men and it shows up here. Adam said it more or less
straight out, but Eve just left the implication hanging in the air. Why was
that deceptive creature the serpent there in the first place? Whose fault is
that? Do you see it? Once again, more subtly this time, a human being is
blaming God for her own sin.
It’s the blame game.
It started at the very beginning and we just keep doing it. Much of the time we
keep doing it in two different, male and female ways. I can’t remember where I
first heard or read the observation that men and women place blame for their
academic failures in different ways. When men fail, they tend to place the
blame outside themselves. “The test was not fair,” “The teacher didn’t like me,”
“It’s a stupid subject anyway.” Women, though, tend to internalize the blame,
“I just can’t do math,” “I was always fooling myself to think I could do this,”
“I never really belonged in college anyway.”
Now that difference
between external and internal blame is just a generalization and men and women
do both, but I think we can see it going on a little in Adam and Eve. Adam
clearly blames God and Eve for his failure. Eve blames the serpent and by
implication God, but notice that she admits she was tricked. She’s telling God she
just didn’t have what it takes to see through the serpent’s deception. There
was something wrong with her.
It’s fairly obvious
that male, Adam-type blaming is wrong. We do it, but we know it’s wrong to
blame someone else, especially to blame God, for what we did. It’s less clear
for the female, Eve-type blaming. But for a person to think she (or he!) failed
because of some natural incapacity or handicap—“I just can’t do math” or “I
just couldn’t see through the trick”—is as much of a blame shift as Adam’s “she
made me do it.” It’s also a way of denying you did anything wrong. You claim
you just couldn’t have done any better.
O.K., I’m sure some of
that is wrong or mixed-up or horrible gender stereo-typing, but all I’m trying
to do is help us see that we are still Adam and Eve. We still sin and still
want to put the blame somewhere else than on our own selves, our own actions,
our own hearts and minds and wills. We blame others. We blame evil forces like
the devil. We blame God and the way He made us or where He put us or the
parents He gave us. We sin and then start blaming and it doesn’t help us at
Of course sometimes
there is genuine fault. Regardless of who is to blame for the war that
followed, Gavrilo Princip pulled a trigger twice to shoot Archduke Ferdinand
and his wife Sophie. He was guilty of murder. Regardless of what words might be
exchanged, an abuser is guilty and to be blamed when he lashes out in physical
violence. Regardless of his upbringing or handicaps or circumstances it’s wrong
for a man to enter a convenience store with a weapon and threaten violence.
He’s to be blamed.
There is real blame.
Adam and Eve were to be blamed for their disbelief in God’s love and care for
them, and for their failure then to obey what God had commanded them for their
own good. The problem is that from the beginning we have changed the simple
acceptance of our own fault and blame into a game to pin it on someone else.
Men blame women. You
can see it happening in our Gospel lesson this morning. In John 8, the scribes and Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in adultery, asking Him what
the penalty should be, given that Moses commanded death by stoning for
adultery. And it’s there in the Old Testament in a couple places: Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22. But look up those verses and you will learn that
both the adulterer and the adulteress were supposed to die. But here were these
religious men hauling only the woman before Jesus. For whatever reasons, the
man’s guilt was ignored. Only the woman was being blamed.
These days, women have
learned to play the game a bit more. Men now are often blamed for many things,
like poor career opportunities for women, for most of the violence in our
societies, for failure to cooperate and work together to make a better world.
Yet in the end the
blame game does no one much good. Even if we find out who is to blame for the
Malaysian jet disaster, it will not restore 239 lives that were lost. And even
more obviously, even if some brilliant historian conclusively proves that a
particular nation or individual is to blame for a war, it will not save all the
people who died in the conflict. The only good that blame can do is when you or
I honestly accept it for ourselves, and then seek the help we need.
In the end, as we will
see in the next couple weeks as we continue to read Genesis 3, God’s answer to sin is not blame. It’s mercy. Yes, He let them see their
guilt and even punished them, but in the end, He showed them a great and
wonderful love and mercy. Which is exactly what Jesus showed that poor woman
collapsed in the dust there before Him on the Mount of Olives: mercy, not
The scribes and
Pharisees were all set for the blame game. They were playing it with the woman
and they were playing it with Jesus. Yes, as they said, the Mosaic law
commanded death for adultery, just like Muslim law does in a few countries
today. But there in first century Palestine, no one was following that law. In
fact, Roman law trumped that Jewish law. Only the Romans had the authority to
put anyone to death. You can see how that played out in Jesus’ own crucifixion.
So the question to
Jesus about what was to be done with this woman was all a game. If Jesus told
them not to stone her, then He would be shown up as soft on the Bible, soft on
God’s law. On the other hand, if He said to give her the traditional
punishment, they could get Him in trouble with the Roman authorities,
advocating for an action Jews no longer had the right to perform.
Jesus knew it was a
game, that at root it was the game of blame. They were blaming the woman for
adultery and wanted to blame Jesus for heresy or treason. They thought they
held all the cards. But then Jesus raised the stakes with that simple,
beautiful direction in John 8:7, “Let the one among you without sin cast the
first stone.” Then He put on His poker face and knelt down to write in the
A few Bible students
have speculated on what Jesus was writing, maybe a list of the sins of all the
angry men who stood around that woman. But in any case, He stopped the game. Thinking
about their own sins, their own blame, they all folded, laid down their cards
and walked away, one by one, as we read in verse 9.
Then we behold that
incredible scene, just Jesus and the woman left there. He asked her in verse 10
where they are, all those who accused her. “Has no one condemned you?” Imagine
her surprise, relief, amazement when she looks up at Him and says, “No one,
Lord.” Then Jesus spoke as God always speaks when He confronts our sin, when He
considers the fact of our blame, “Neither do I condemn you.”
The blame was real.
Jesus didn’t just let that woman go. He told her to go and not to sin again.
God’s mercy is not just to ignore sin and blame. It’s to take it away, to make
us by grace into people who no longer deserve blame.
We heard it last week
from John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world through him might be saved.” We read it this morning from Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died
We try to place blame.
God wants to place mercy, to place love. Yes, there is blame, plenty to go
around, enough for everyone as Adam and Eve knew, and as Jesus reminded those
scribes and Pharisees. But for all the blame, there is a wonderful, deep and
boundless mercy coming to us from God through Jesus His Son. The blame we’ve
got. But He wants to give us the mercy.
So I invite you today,
if you are feeling the blame, if you are feeling guilty, if you have said and
done things which you know and are willing to admit are clearly your fault,
there is mercy for that. Trust in the love and grace of God poured out for you
when Jesus died and rose again, and your blame can be forgiven. You can receive
mercy instead. Trust Jesus and accept that gift of mercy.
But if you accept mercy,
then accept it not just for yourself, but for those around you. If you want the
blame game to end for you, then let it end for your family, your friends, your
co-workers, everyone with whom you live and interact day by day. Just like
those scribes and Pharisees, you can’t expect God to show you mercy if you
don’t have mercy for others. You can’t expect not to be blamed if you keep on
blaming those around you.
A couple times in
talking to married couples with problems I’ve had the joy of seeing the light
come on as they think about blame and mercy. They’ve been playing the blame
game. It’s his fault, it’s her fault. But when together they set the blame
aside, like God sets it aside for anyone who trusts in Jesus, something
changes. Instead of trying to pin the blame, they start showing mercy. And in
that mercy for each other they find a space for healing and redemption and a
Blame is real, but
playing the blame game will only kill us; we’ll only kill each other. Showing
mercy is a far better game, a far better reality in which to live. It’s God’s
game. It’s God’s gift. May you receive that mercy in Jesus today.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj