Jesus and the Merciful

The young woman stands, white-faced, before a shouting crowd. She is naked but for a bedsheet clutched around herself. Some of the men’s eyes travel hungrily up and down her body, leering and smirking slyly. She is too humiliated to meet their eyes, too terrified to speak or even to cry. Peeking sideways, she sees men gathering hefty rocks. Some clunk them down on a growing pile while others pass them out to the unruly spectators. Her mind, numb with shock, cannot process their angry words, but she knows her death is near.

Her life is thrown away, and for what? For giving in to sweet words, to lies and promises, for throwing caution to the wind. But her husband had caught them in the act, dragged her from the bed and roughly paraded her through the streets of Jerusalem, roaring in outrage, attracting more men who had joined in the furious indignation as if she represented all the betrayals of all the women in all the world. Rough hands had jerked and pushed her all the way to the temple courts, pulled her into this holy place in all her shame, and stood her in front of one particular man to whom they addressed their accusations as if he were a judge.

The opposite of mercy is not justice,
but judgmentalism.

But the man stands silent. She dares to glance at his face and sees that he is looking back with eyes that are deep wells of compassion. But he seems to ignore the men. He bends down and doodles in the dust. The longer does so, the more her heart pounds in wild terror. Finally, he stands to speak: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stoops back down and disregards the crowd again.

The woman instinctively cowers, covering her head with her arms and bracing for the first stone’s blow. But the crowd becomes oddly quiet. There are a few grumbles and huffs of indignation, then the murmurs become mere scuffling as men shift from one foot to the other. After a long minute, a stone falls to the ground with a thump beside the feet of an old man, and those feet turn around and exit through the crowd. Then another thump, and another, until the ground is littered with stones and the only feet that remain are hers and those of the judge-man, who has straightened again and is looking at her with those kind eyes. “Where did everybody go?” he asks. “Isn’t there anyone left to condemn you?”

Now her tears arrive and begin to course down her cheeks. “No sir,” she replies, and her voice catches for a moment on her tears. “No one.”

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

In this encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Jesus demonstrates the meaning of mercy. According to the ancient Israelite law,1 adultery was punishable by stoning. Leaving aside the question of such harsh, capital punishments in the Hebrew Bible, as First Century Jews, the crowd was technically in the right. She was undeniably guilty. But Jesus recognized many things at once: the trap being laid for him (under Roman rule, it was now illegal for the Jews to carry out the death penalty themselves), the injustice of this execution (Where was the male adulterer? By law, he should have been executed also.), and the repentance of the woman. I would speculate that he felt a push-pull phenomenon. The pull of mercy towards the woman, whose life was redeemable, and the push of revulsion for the hypocritical judgmentalism of the crowd.

People sometimes act as if mercy is a negation of justice. The families of the murdered may feel that to forgive the murderer is to betray their loved one. Yet this beautiful summary of God’s call to us contradicts that belief:

“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.”

Micah 6:8, NIV

There is no conflict between justice and mercy. As citizens, we seek justice, and also watch for opportunities to extend both personal and societal mercy. The opposite of mercy is not justice, but judgmentalism. And unfortunately, this is one of evangelicalism’s biggest failings. In their eagerness to maintain their own spotless reputations, to keep their churches clean and shiny, to clearly define their categorical disapproval for everything on their “thou shalt not” lists, Christians have cold-shouldered the divorced, avoided the incarcerated, shamed their adult children living with partners, punished high schoolers for reading classic books they have banned from Christian schools. I could go on and on from personal experience, both of what I have seen and — I must confess — at one time been guilty of.

Here the promise of this beatitude is not only comforting, but also instructive:

“Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.”

Jesus, Matthew 5:7, NASB

Surely the root of judgmentalism is minimization and outright blindness towards our own failings. Conversely, the cure for judgmentalism is an awareness of how we constantly fall short of Jesus’s high standards of love and mercy. This is not to say that we need to wallow in a perpetual stew of self-recrimination, but rather, we need to have a healthy sense of our own imperfections, to be quick to admit them and slow to condemn others. Remembering our constant need for mercy, let us notice and appreciate it when it is offered. And let our need for mercy fuel our loving extension of mercy to others.

Interested in some other stories of Jesus extending mercy to people who didn’t “deserve” it? Check out these: Zacchaeus the cheater; another cheater, Matthew, and his “friends in low places”; another disreputable woman; and a criminal. Not to mention all the stories he told about out-of-control sons, wayward sheep and the like. If you’ve taken the time to read those stories, then I’m sure you will have picked up on a theme. Jesus is constantly being criticized for hanging out with sinners and other “deplorables.” That should tell us something. I don’t think he thought of them that way. He just saw people, flawed but capable of growth. Often stuck in the mire of destructive patterns, but yet still infinitely precious and worthy of love simply by virtue of having been created in God’s image.

1 Leviticus 20:10

Next post: Jesus and the Pure in Heart

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