One of the tenderest, if not the most tender, story in the New Testament, is that of Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in the act of adultery.
She was brought to Jesus for stoning, because that was the law of the day. It was clearly a test for Jesus. The accusing men who brought the woman put Jesus in a “no-win” dilemma. If He elected to show mercy on the woman and free her, He would clearly be disobeying the Jewish law. If He condemned her, or did not intervene in preventing condemnation, He would be going against everything He had taught about compassion and forgiveness.
The accusers thought they had Him. They made their charge, but they were not prepared for Jesus’ response. I’m sure they were speechless, immobilized by Jesus’ offer, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Then Jesus did a very strange thing. Without saying another word, He bent over and wrote in the sand. We wonder — was He allowing the people some relief with their engagement with Him in order that they might deal with their own consciences? Or did He write something that probed even more deeply and burned more searingly upon their calloused hearts? We don’t know what He wrote; we can only ponder that and use our imagination.
I remember once when my dad and I were talking about this story, he provided an insight I had never heard before. When my dad and I were talking about this, he suggested Jesus might have written in the sand a question — a simple one. The question might have been this: “How would you feel if this was your sister?”
Powerful and searching, isn’t it? What a difference it would make if the accused was a sister. Jesus saw her as a sister, and you know what He did — whatever He wrote in the sand, and we can only guess at that — when He rose and looked around, there was no one present to condemn the woman, and Jesus announced to her His forgiveness and call to new life.
That’s who Jesus was — merciful, tender, seeking the best and calling it forth from a person — “seeking to save the lost.” That’s who Jesus was, and it was in keeping with everything God came to earth to be and do.
But I wonder — I wonder if, when He was confronted with those violent men who wanted to stone this wretch of a woman — I wonder if He remembered Rahab.
Some of you may have never heard her name. For most of us, her name is not one we readily recall among biblical personalities. But Jesus may have called her to mind that day, because, you see, she was one of his great-grandmothers. How far back, as a great-grandmother, I haven’t figured out. She is one of four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ family in the first chapter of his gospel.
Tradition has it that she married Solomon, one of the two spies whose life she saved. Their son — the son of Rahab and her husband — was Boaz. Boaz married Ruth, and Ruth and Boaz were the grandparents of David. So the family line came on down to Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus.
Rahab — a prostitute! “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” In the genealogy as a grandparent of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Let’s look at her, because she has much to teach us. You may know the story well enough to put it into perspective. Joshua is the key figure in the drama in which Rahab plays a supporting role.
Joshua sent two spies to search out Jericho. They had been told to go to the house of a harlot named Rahab. It’s easy to imagine them; eager to avoid identity, they mixed briefly with the crowds outside the city, long enough to learn that the house situated so strategically on the walls belonged to a harlot named Rahab. Here they found some safety, for city authorities had often seen strangers enter her home.
You heard the story in our scripture lesson. The spies went to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and they lodged there. When the king’s men came looking for them, Rahab hid them, telling the king’s men that they had already gone, and sent them in hot pursuit. So, Rahab played a significant role in the battle of Jericho, protecting the spies until they could get the information they needed to take back to Joshua in order that Joshua might “fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumbling down.”
Rahab, the harlot, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
Let’s look at her as a profile of faith and see what we can learn.
In the story of Rahab, three important theological truths are illuminated. First is the issue of original sin. When was the last time you heard a sermon on original sin? The truth of the matter is there is nothing original about sin.
Somewhere along the way I heard of a little Christian college in Arkansas that advertised in its bulletin that it was sixteen miles from any known sin. I grew up in the backwoods of Mississippi, and I know that Arkansas and Mississippi are a lot alike. Nowhere in my backwoods Mississippi could you get six miles, much less sixteen, from any known sin.
My friend, Ellsworth Kalas, reported a conversation of a member of his congregation with coworkers. When someone asked if the others had had a good night’s sleep, one of the men answered, “I never get a good night’s sleep. I was born with a rusty spoon in my mouth.”
It was not a bitter statement. The man who spoke it was a pleasant fellow, not given to pessimism or complaint. It was a matter-of-fact analysis, a summary of life as he had observed parts of it: “I was born with a rusty spoon in my mouth.”
Along with Ellsworth, I believe that man knows something about theology, because his metaphor suggests a little of what we mean when we refer to the Christian doctrine of original sin. We mean that we are born with a rusty spoon.
I also like my friend Ellsworth’s response to a university student who asked him if he believed in original sin. Ellsworth responded, “Not in theory, only in fact.” Some theologian said a long time ago that every human being is born with a pack on his back. That’s a part of what original sin is.
You see, whatever your theory or doctrine of original sin, you and I live every day with the fact of sin; and I ask you, do you know anyone who has lived very long who has not fallen into a snare of sin, into the snare of choosing our own way, and eating the fruit God forbids us to eat?
Rahab teaches us about original sin. She was a prostitute, operating a house of ill-fame at the wall of Jericho. We don’t know anything about her birth or upbringing, but we can rightly assume that they were troubled. Perhaps her parents lived outside the law, so that it seemed perfectly natural to her to carry on in the same fashion. Or perhaps — though less likely — they were good people who simply didn’t provide Rahab with nurturing influences which led her in the right paths.
One way or another, her life somewhere began to go wrong. Eventually, probably while she was still quite young, she entered a life of prostitution. Now the pattern of her days was sordid.
“Her house, built right into the wall of the city, was appropriately located, for she was out at the edge of all of life. She lived outside the law, but she probably used it by buying off corrupt officials, in order to carry on her work. Usually she saw men at their worst; some of them brutal, all of them furtive. She knew, when she went shopping, that merchants looked upon her payment as tainted money, but they also seemed willing enough to accept it. Hers was a rusted-spoon kind of world, and there was no apparent way to get out of it. She lived at the edge of life, I say: on the edge of the law, on the edge of love, on the edge of hope.” (J. Ellsworth Kalas, On Starting With A Rusty Spoon, sermon preached February 14, 1988).
She teaches us about original sin. Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
But not only about original sin; Rahab also teaches us about prevenient grace. This is a unique emphasis of us Methodist children of John Wesley — prevenient grace. We sing about it, and maybe to sing about it is better than talking about it.
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me
It was not I that found, O Saviour true;
No, I was found of Thee.
Thou didst reach forth Thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
T’was not so much that I on Thee took hold,
as Thou, dear Lord, on me.”
That’s the nature of prevenient grace, and Rahab teaches us about it. Long before we are aware of it, in a thousand different ways, God’s Spirit moves in our lives. That’s who God is — one who sees us, even when we are unaware that we are being sought. Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
Even in her place, she did not escape the wooing of God’s Spirit. I can imagine that in her position and in her work, she was often the first to get gossip and privileged information. No doubt she heard the wondrous tales of the way the Israelites had escaped Egypt, had survived a whole generation in the howling wilderness, and how they were now marching like a motley but disciplined army toward Jericho and the adjoining cities.
Rumors had it that the Lord God was with them — that the Israelites were invincible. Of course, the people of Jericho would have laughed and scoffed at those rumors. But, somehow, Rahab felt deep within her that the rumors might be true.
And now these two spies came for lodging at her house.
In a way that God’s Spirit so often works, there was produced in Rahab’s heart the deep conviction that these men represented God and God’s cause — therefore, she was led to protect them. That night, these two men spoke to Rahab about the God of Israel, and of the great destiny that He had planned for the people of God. The words of these men reached her heart because already the Spirit of God had prepared her heart. That’s prevenient grace: God working in our lives — God’s Spirit seeking to open our eyes, soften our wills and provide for us the setting to say yes to Him.
Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this,” teaching us about prevenient grace?
Original sin, prevenient grace, and a third great theological doctrine: the doctrine of faith and works coming together as the Christian way. In Rahab — a prostitute? Yes! “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”
Not only does Matthew name her as a great-grandparent of Jesus, listen to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews in his chapter that names the great faith hall of fame,
Here is a prostitute listed in the great company of magnificent exemplars of faith — Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Noah. That’s a pretty impressive position for someone born with a rusty spoon in her mouth.
Not only the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews, James also gives Rahab an even greater providence. In his book, he’s trying to show that faith without works is dead, and he proves his point by telling the story of Abraham. Then, as if to show that there is more than one example of his argument, James writes (
James concluded: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” — teaching us about faith, but also teaching us that faith without works is dead?
Three great theological truths in the story of a prostitute. Rahab — “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” She is here to humble us and expose our pride for what it cantankerously is; to teach us that we are all saved only by the grace of God. God teaches us three great lessons in theology, especially the meaning of faith — and God teaches us through a prostitute. Now that’s a lot to learn from a person we have to pull out of the shadows, one who plays only a supportive role in one of the Old Testament dramas.
But there is more. I want to talk about another issue suggested by Rahab — the sinful, destructive snare into which too many of us fall, what I call the insider/outsider phenomenon. When we ask the question, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?”, it’s usually from another perspective. What’s a “good” person like you doing here? What’s a person of your social stature doing hob-nobbing with these persons of lower class? Why is a person of your “class” associating with these “red-necks”?
Yet when we find Rahab’s name in the genealogy of Jesus, and see her portrait in the faith hall of fame, or hear James use her as an illustration along with the venerable Abraham in his preaching about faith active in works — we’re asking the question from a different perspective, and perhaps with not a little condescension: “How did a person like you get into this lineup?” It’s like showing up at the formal ball with a tux, but not just wearing brown shoes — wearing brown brogan shoes! Come to think of it, you might be the first one to sneer, “What’s a person like you doing in a place like this?”
It’s the pernicious insider/outsider phenomenon that is destructive of life and that Jesus came to eradicate. None of us escapes this damnable phenomenon. It goes to all sorts of extremes, like the fellow who said, “I look down my nose at people who look down their noses at others.”
Earlier I suggested that Jesus may have remembered Rahab when he wrote in the sand. Could he also have remembered her when he stormed out at the self-righteous of his day — saying to them, “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom before you.” When you are tempted to turn up your nose and act in any way as an insider — shutting other people out — just remember that three of the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus were adulteresses.
Recently I received one of the most moving letters I have ever received. I wept as I first read it, and my heart hurts now as I recall it. A young man, far away in another state, honored me and paid a great compliment to the ministry of the church. He poured out the depths of his heart in telling me he was dying of AIDS. He didn’t know how long he would live.
Why was he writing me? His parents are members of this congregation. He was quite certain that they would not have shared this pain and sorrow with anyone, including their pastor. He didn’t want me to break his confidence — and I won’t — but he wanted me to know, so that when he does die, I can minister lovingly and supportively to his parents.
I share the story, friends, because there are others like that young man in this congregation and every congregation. They and their families are in the church and if they aren’t they need desperately the ministry of the church. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t learn from what God did with Rahab, if we don’t learn from Jesus, we’ll communicate to folks who need us that we are insiders and they are outsiders, and until they become like us, we won’t have anything to do with them. That’s foreign to the Gospel, violating everything Jesus came to provide for us and to teach.
Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” You teach us that in God’s grace, all insider/outsider barriers are shattered, eradicated — and we all stand on common ground, desperately in need of God’s love, and the love of each other.
So Rahab teaches us not only about theology, but about life together — how we are to relate to others.
I close now by focusing on what, for some, is an incidental part of the story. But there is meaning beyond the charm of it. I didn’t read it in our lesson, so let me tell you.
When the king’s men who had been searching for the two spies had gone, Rahab joined the two spies on the roof where she had hidden them safely away. They made their plans. She was going to let them down by a rope out of the window, outside the city wall, because remember her house was built into the city wall.
Before she did so, the charming, intriguing, but deeply meaningful plan for the survival of Rahab and her family was devised. When Joshua and his army returned to conquer the city, Rahab was to tie a scarlet cord in the window through which she had let the spies down. She was to gather her family — mother and father, brothers and sisters and their children — into the house. When the soldiers saw the scarlet cord, they would leave that house untouched. Rahab and her family would be saved by the scarlet cord.
Does that remind you of the blood on the doorposts of the houses of Israel back in Egypt, so the Angel of Death would pass over them? Does it remind you of that scarlet thread God hung out on Calvary’s hill in the shape of a cross?
Rahab, “What’s a person like you doing in a place like this?” That scarlet cord, waving from your window, is not strange for us Christians thousands of years later, because you taught us about sin and grace, about salvation by grace and faith without works being dead. You taught us about insider/outsider walls being abolished. So your waving scarlet cord reminds us of the Cross and our salvation.
Rahab is saying to us: Come home! If this harlot, born with a rusty spoon in her mouth, can make it home, home to the family of Jesus — one of His great-grandmothers — there is a place for us in that family.
Rahab, “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” Whatever you are doing here, we want to join you!