Mercy

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 8:1-11

Let me tell you a story today that includes the most important thing Jesus Christ could say to you.

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 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. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

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. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

John 8:1-11, niv

This is the Bible story no one knows what to do with. It probably does not belong where it is – usually printed as the opening verses of the eighth chapter of John. Most modern versions set this story within parentheses, or print it in smaller type, or put it in a footnote to show that it does not appear in the oldest and most accurate copies of John’s Gospel. Biblical scholars aren’t sure just where the story came from, or which Gospel it is part of.

But nobody could leave it out of the Bible. You only have to listen to this encounter between Jesus and a woman caught in adultery to know it is genuine. This is the real Jesus we hear and see in these verses. To anyone who has come to know Jesus Christ as he lives on the pages of the New Testament, his words and actions here ring true. This story really happened. We just don’t happen to know where to put it in the book.

As I listen again to this encounter I find myself having more questions than answers. But one thing comes through with absolute clarity: Jesus’ mercy. He was the perfect human being. He lived the ultimate life. As a model of human behavior, no one else comes close to Jesus of Nazareth. He was, in the words of his friend and follower Peter, like a “lamb without spot or blemish.” If anyone could have justifiably looked down upon the moral failings of other people, if anyone could have passed judgment upon ordinary sinners, it was Jesus Christ. But instead, he showed mercy. He pardoned where he could have condemned. No wonder they called him the “friend of sinners.”

SOME SCRIBES AND PHARISEES

The story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is really about a double encounter. Jesus was teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. His old enemies found him there. We know them usually as “the scribes and the Pharisees,” or “the teachers of the law.” They were the religious establishment who felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity and who resented the air of quiet authority with which Jesus passed judgment upon their cherished religious traditions. Jesus’ enemies approached him on this occasion for the usual reason – to get him into trouble, to discredit him and destroy his character and reputation if they could. They came with an unusual case – a woman taken in adultery.

Now here is where my questions start. The story says the woman was “caught in the very act of adultery.” I wonder how the religious authorities managed to do that? And if they did catch this woman in the act of committing adultery, why was she alone brought before Jesus in the public courts of the Temple? Where was the man? Why is this the story of “The Woman Taken in Adultery”; why not “The Couple Taken in Adultery”? After all, the man was just as guilty. Is this another example of society’s notorious double standard, first-century style? Actually, the whole thing smells fishy. It looks very much like a set-up, where the woman was caught and the man very conveniently allowed to escape, so that the authorities could present Jesus with an inescapable dilemma.

However the scribes and Pharisees may have taken her, they now brought this woman to Jesus. There was no question about her guilt; she was a sinner, caught in the very act. There was no possibility of quietly solving the affair. Jesus was teaching in the temple, the most public of places. There was a large crowd gathered there. Nor was this a chance encounter. The story says that the authorities intentionally brought the woman to Jesus to trap him – “in order to have grounds for accusing him.” They told Jesus what the woman was guilty of. They reminded him that the Old Testament Jewish Law commanded the death penalty for adultery, and they asked Jesus for his verdict.

Now they thought that they had him! They were placing Jesus in an impossible situation. There were only two responses he could make, either of which would destroy his good name and popularity. If Jesus condemned the woman to death, he would forfeit his reputation for mercy and love toward sinners. But if he urged pardon, he would seem to be contradicting the Law of God. What would Jesus say; what could he say?

He didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he did something odd. Refusing to respond to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ question, not even looking at them, Jesus stooped down and began to write in the dirt with his finger. Only then did he speak: “Let the one of you who is without sin throw the first stone.” The punishment prescribed in the Old Testament for the sin of adultery was for the entire community to take the offending parties outside and throw stones at them until they were killed. This mob seems to have been motivated more by hatred of Jesus than by any desire for justice or real concern about God’s Law – let alone any feelings of pity for the sinful woman. So Jesus made a simple suggestion. Let the full penalty of the law be executed by any man who was completely innocent and had nothing himself to fear from that law. Then Jesus bent down and started to write in the dirt again.

There’s another question. What was he writing? I would love to know. One ancient church father speculated that Jesus was writing down the secret sins of each of his would-be attackers. Whatever it was, the effect of Jesus’ words – both spoken and written – was dramatic. The spirit went out of the mob like air from a three-day-old balloon. One by one, beginning with the oldest (and presumably the wisest), these inquisitors melted away.

A SINFUL WOMAN

When Jesus looked up from his writing, only one person was left standing in front of him. It was the woman. His confrontation with the crowd was over, but he still faced a further confrontation with a solitary sinner. And she was that. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the injustice of her accusers, she was guilty. There was no doubt about that at all. And now the confrontation was between just two people – she on one side, Jesus on the other. What would he say to her?

Jesus looked around. “Where did they all go?” he asked. “Did no one condemn you?” “No, sir,” the woman replied, waiting. For all the excitement and drama of the story up to this point – the noisy crowd and the tense atmosphere, the rigged test and the astonishing way Jesus responded, the crowd slinking away in their guilt -this quiet moment when Jesus stood face to face alone with the sinner is the real climax of the story.

What would Jesus do? You see, he could have thrown the first stone at her. He could have done that, justly and without hypocrisy. Jesus fulfilled his own criterion for passing judgment – he was without sin. He had a perfect right to condemn this woman. But he didn’t.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus.

Think about those words. Think about the one who spoke them. Jesus Christ, with a perfect right to execute judgment against a sinner, chooses to extend mercy. There is a difference between his refusal to condemn the woman and the crowd’s reluctance to carry out the penalty. The others failed to condemn her because they were equally guilty. Jesus, though guiltless, refused to condemn her because he is wonderfully merciful. The scribes and Pharisees left because Jesus awakened their consciences: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” As the noted preacher G. Campbell Morgan once commented, “That one sentence put me out of the stone-throwing business for good.” We ought to show mercy to others because we need to be shown mercy ourselves. We are all sinners. This doesn’t mean, of course, that all laws should be suspended or that criminals should never be punished. But it does mean that none of us should feel smug or self-righteous or morally superior. Whenever we see or hear of a guilty person receiving punishment, we should remember the old saying: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Whenever we have opportunity we should show mercy and extend forgiveness to others, recognizing how much we ourselves have to be forgiven for.

But Jesus is different. His mercy is of a different kind, of a higher order. I’ve been talking for many weeks in this series of messages about the humanity of Christ. He is the supreme model of how we should live. His life is a splendid display of all the qualities and virtues that distinguish an authentically human life. Jesus Christ is the pattern of what God intends life to be like.

Having said that, we’ve said a lot. But we haven’t said everything. Because Jesus is more than a model, infinitely more. He is more than a man, infinitely more. When he shows mercy, when he refuses to condemn, it is God who is speaking. When Jesus forgives, it is God offering to take our sins away. The Bible is not just law that condemns us. It is also wonderful promises of mercy.

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression . . . you do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins under foot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

Micah 7:18-19

Only God can do that. He pardons with his eyes wide open, knowing what we are like. He forgives, knowing what it will cost him. For Jesus, mercy is not merely a matter of saying some kind words. He must also pay the penalty of sin – that woman’s sin, the scribe’s and Pharisees’ sin, your sin and mine. It is because of the cross that Jesus can truly say, “Neither do I condemn you.”

And he says one more thing – “Go now and leave your life of sin.” That’s his final word to the woman, and to us. It’s a command to repent. Jesus’ embrace of the sinner does not include her sinful way of living. He rejects that and commands her to do the same. When Jesus shows mercy, offers forgiveness, he also orders repentance. The two go together. You can’t keep the forgiveness unless you also add the repentance. And notice the order. It’s mercy first, and then turning away from our sinning ways. We often think it’s the other way around – that you repent and then you can be forgiven. But it’s not. Grace is first. God forgives, God extends mercy, God speaks pardon. Repentance is the way we respond to grace. It’s not, “Repent in order to be forgiven.” With Jesus, it is, “I forgive you. Now go and leave your life of sin.”

Will you do that?