Mercy triumphs over judgment. And while we must not pretend brokenness is wholeness, we must also learn to live together in a community where mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 4:12)
53 Then they all went home, 8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
11 ‘No one, sir,’ she said.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ (John 7:53-8:11)
So many facets to this, the crown jewel of Gospel stories. Where do we begin?
Do we start by addressing the footnotes in some bibles regarding the authenticity of the text? Is this is a true Jesus account, as the early church fathers agreed, from Augustine to Jerome? By Augustine, who flourished around 400 AD thought that earlier Christians had removed the story from their preaching out of embarrassment and fear it would be seen as condoning sin (which it clearly does not). The story of the woman caught in adultery may not have originally belonged in this exact spot in John’s gospel, or even in John’s gospel at all, but nearly every source agrees that this story belongs somewhere in the Bible. The end of chapter 7 is probably as good a place as any.
Or do we begin by speculating on what Jesus wrote on the ground? Was it the exact wording of the Law of Moses from Leviticus 20:10, or Deuteronomy 22:22, which said: “both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” If Jesus was writing the law on the ground, it begged the question: why did these so-called law-experts bring in only the woman, but not the man, and thus defy the law themselves? Was, perhaps, one of the accusers also THE adulterous man? Was Jesus writing their name? Or it’s possible that Jesus wrote another part of the law, Deuteronomy 17:7, which says “The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death,” thereby pointing out that the only one who could throw the first stone at the woman, was the one who saw it happen – presumably the person who slept with her, who would therefore be just as guilty as her? What did Jesus write on the ground? Was it the names of each accuser accompanied by a list of their sins? We may never know what Jesus wrote on the ground, but whatever it was, it certainly astounded the stoners.
Or do we focus our attention on the often-forgotten fact that Jesus KNELT before both the woman who sinned and her accusers as he corrected each side? Jesus demonstrated a posture of humility which we must also demonstrate in conflict. Do you know how to tell if someone is a real Christian or an imposter? Look at their knees.
So much to this story!
We could observe the significance that whatever Jesus wrote, He wrote on soft ground, rather than on stone tablets, perhaps signifying that the old stone tablets of the law would now give way to the new law of love and mercy written in soft hearts of flesh?
Or do we zero in on the glaring problem for evangelicals that nowhere in this story does the woman ask forgiveness or demonstrate repentance, yet Jesus forgives anyway. Repentance, in this instance anyway, is not a prerequisite for her forgiveness. Instead repentance and confession is a post-forgiveness request, a clear expectation Jesus has of the woman after the fact when He says, “Go and sin no more.”
What a vast storehouse of treasure this passage is! It could supply a month of sermons. But I’m going to limit it to just the one today. This truly is a multifaceted jewel, perhaps the crown jewel, of Jesus stories, and it is beautiful.
Today, rather than focusing on any of those points, I am going to zero-in on something the Lord placed on my heart as I studied, Micah 6:8 (NKJV), which says,
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
“To act justly” means to do what is right, or to live right. To avoid sin. To both “be good” and “do good,” as my children can tell you I remind them regularly.
“To love mercy” means to be merciful to others, not to judge one another in our brokenness, but to love one another and lift each other up.
“To walk humbly” means to always maintain a posture of humility. To ask hard questions of others only as we bravely ask harder questions of ourselves.
I believe the challenge in Micah 6:8 to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God is exemplified in the way Jesus handles this attempt by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law to attack and discredit him.
You see, in this story, the religious wing nuts, fed up with being challenged, are out to trap Jesus. They invent a clever mousetrap, but it is not clever enough. Their reasoning goes like this: On the one hand, if Jesus forgives the woman, He flouts the law of God, and is not “doing justly” as the law requires. If they can show that Jesus approves of sin, they can sideline him for good. On the other hand, if Jesus agrees to let her be stoned to death, He shows that His gospel of mercy for sinners is all talk. If He has her killed, he does not “love mercy” as he has been preaching to the crowds, and they will turn against him.
Like I said, it’s a clever trap. What is Jesus to do? It seems like an unwinnable situation.
This dilemma is not unlike the treacherous waters faithful people of God find themselves in today, in a culture where sin is celebrated, where mercy is perceived as affirmation of sin, and where humility is mocked as weakness.
Faithful followers of Christ are constantly assailed by a world that insists that we cannot uphold both mercy and justice at the same time. The devil still likes to back us into this same false corner, telling us that if we love sinners, we love sin as well, and if we hate sin, we hate sinners as well. This is a lie, of course. It is possible to love the sinner and hate the sin. Meanwhile, the world responds to humility with deep arrogance, canceling anyone it deems unholy according to its capricious standards.
This trap is, in actuality, a false dichotomy. Jesus demonstrates exactly how to get out of this box the world wants to put us in by simply outflanking the argument on both sides. In effect, he traps the trappers.
Where they offer mercy only under certain conditions, He goes beyond the trap and offers mercy without condition.
Where they pick and choose obedience only to the law as far as it suits them, Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law, and demands radical obedience to the full Spirit of the law.
And where they like to set traps and point accusing fingers, Jesus kneels on the ground and offers correction with total humility.
It is neither unloving to hate sin, nor unrighteous to love sinners. Doing justly requires speaking the truth, and loving mercy requires doing so in love. Truth and love are not in conflict. I can disagree with you and love you. In fact, if I truly love you, I have to disagree with you when you are making choices that harm yourself, or others, or God’s purposes. But I must always speak the truth in love, with all humility.
We must do justly – more justly than legalistic religion ever could do. We must exceed the moralists in our personal morality through gut-level obedience to God and His moral laws.
We must love mercy – loving mercy more than the world ever could, as it continually strains out cultural gnats, canceling poets, but all the while swallowing the eopie of fundamental disregard for basic morality and human life.
We must walk humbly – more humbly than a world obsessed with placing blame on everyone and everything besides themselves. While the world seeks to place blame on others, we must always call our own motives into question.
We are faced with the same snare set for Jesus in today’s reading.
How do we do justly without falling into the trap of being judgmental?
How do we love mercy without falling into the trap of condoning immorality?
How do we walk humbly in a society that has trained us to immediately form a protest without ever putting in the hard work of respectfully listening to those with opposing viewpoints?
What does it look like to do justly today? We do justly by holding even more firmly to the ideals of God. Jesus did not come to blur moral lines, but to draw them in crisp focus. He came not to do away with the law but to fulfill it. The Master said:
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’ (Matthew 5: 17-18 NIV)
On the subject of anger, Jesus said this:
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
On the subject of sex, Jesus said this:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Matthew 5.27-28)
I could go on, but it should be very clear that Jesus is not soft on the subjects of morality and sin, as the Pharisees thought. He did not tell the woman, “Go and PARTY ON all the more,” but “Go and sin no more.” He said virtually the same thing to the lame man he healed at the pool in John 5:14: “‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.’ “
Jesus upheld the call to do justly. So must we.
Next, what does it look like to love mercy without condoning immorality?
James reminds us, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)
True mercy begins with acknowledging our shared brokenness as fallen creatures. We recognize and agree with the scriptures that remind us that we are all sinners – saved by God’s grace, yes – but sinners nonetheless.
When we see it that way, we see that we are all merely beggars, telling other beggars where to find bread, and there is no room for anything but an attitude of mercy toward one another.
Are we sinners? Yes. Are we broken? Badly. But more importantly, are we beloved by the God of mercy? Yes, yes, yes!
James sternly warns us to be merciful, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12-13)
First, do justly – walk in heartfelt obedience to the moral law of God.
Second, love mercy. We cannot judge others, lest we be judged ourselves.
And finally, what does it look like to walk humbly with our God in a culture that seeks not to understand those who disagree, but to pound them into oblivion, cancel them, burn their books, and silence their voices forever? How do we overcome the arrogance of a culture that is quick to judge normal human beings who happened to be on-duty as out of the doorway the bullets ripped? Humility asks, “Were any of us there? Would I really have done any better?”
This same judgmental culture also stubbornly refuses to question its own obsession with obscenely violent entertainment. Our culture lacks the humility to consider the appropriateness of playing disturbingly violent songs at school football games (including the deplorable school shooting anthem “Another one Bites the Dust” by Queen). Our culture is repulsed by the humility it would take to confront its addiction to appallingly violent games and shockingly violent entertainment. And so we point the finger of self-righteous judgment, blaming everyone else but refusing to take a fearless self-inventory of our own attitudes and behaviors.
Humility is a medicine we lack as a society just when we need to question ourselves the most.
How do we navigate life in a world that calls for more justice, greater mercy, and the humility of Christ? How do we respond when we are accused of being unjust on the one hand, or unmerciful on the other.
Jesus makes it look easy.
We outflank the world in doing justice. We out-love the world by showing mercy. And we out kneel the world by doing it all in total humility.
We do as Jesus did, which is what God called us to do through the prophet Micah. Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.
May we all learn to do so ever more as we see the Day of Christ approaching.