A “scarlet letter” is a stigma someone bears for a misdeed he or she has committed. The term often refers to an ongoing, public shame forced upon a person as a means of ostracizing him or her. Those branded with a scarlet letter feel the punitive vengeance of an unforgiving society.
The term “scarlet letter” comes from the 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the novel, a woman named Hester Prynne, a resident of colonial New England, is convicted of adultery. As punishment, the Puritan community she resides in requires her to wear the letter A on her bodice for the rest of her life. Hester, far from being cowed by her punishment, embraces the symbol and wears it proudly—on every piece of clothing, she sews an oversized scarlet A decorated with fine embroidery. One of Hawthorne’s points in the novel is that the external punishment meted out by man is insufficient to change the heart.
Modern allusions to a scarlet letter are found in songs by Taylor Swift and Casting Crowns. Swift’s “Love Song” refers to a scarlet letter in the context of a forced estrangement. In Casting Crowns’ “Does Anybody Hear Her?” the reference is to giving someone the cold shoulder because of her sin.
When we allow a person’s sinful reputation to become his most prominent feature, when we identify people only by their sins, we might as well be attaching a scarlet letter to their chest. We are called to take the good news of Jesus’ salvation to all the world (Acts 1:8). The pariahs of society need to hear that there is hope for them. Jesus set the example in this, as He was seen “eating with the sinners and tax collectors” (Mark 2:16). In response to the criticism He received, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
In John 8, when an adulteress was brought to Jesus for public condemnation, Jesus had several options. He could have ostracized her. He could have humiliated her. He could have thrown the first stone. He did none of those things. Rather, Jesus forgave the woman’s sin and commanded a new life: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). The wonderful truth is that Jesus removes scarlet letters. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).