JUDGMENT AND MERCY

by | Feb 14, 2023

The scribes and Pharisees brought her to Jesus for judgment.

Caught in adultery, they desired to exact the full penalty of the law against a woman and pummel her to death with stones. Guilty. Exposed. Vulnerable. Her life was at the mercy of the mob and the verdict of a rabbi who continued to etch in the sand with his finger.

Our culture is confused about judgment. None of us want to be judged, but we like to judge others. In John 8 the throng of Pharisees and scribes literally wanted to kill the woman caught in adultery. Today our judgment of others may not be as murderous but much of it is as sinister. When men and women fall from grace, make ignorant comments, or merely reveal that they are sinners, there is heightened demand from the masses to kill their platforms, careers, voices, and influence.

The interconnectedness of social media has galvanized mobs with extraordinary efficiency and provided myriad stones for them to hurl. One ignorant Tweet can be shared and eviscerated thousands of times within an hour, igniting a firestorm and inciting a riotous response towards the one caught in her indiscretion. Like lemmings these throngs grab their hapless victim and careen her off the cliff as thoughtlessly and violently as possible. The Pharisees wanted to bury the adulterous woman beneath a pile of literal stones. Today, we seek to bury sinners beneath a pile of accusations, shame, and vitriol.

The Pharisees and scribes hauled the woman to Jesus because of her moral indiscretion. They felt justified in snuffing this woman out completely, and they looked to Jesus to validate their assessment of her failure and condemn her.

That was their mistake.

Anytime we bring broken failures to Jesus, we set them before the mercy seat. In John 8, the mob intended to prosecute the woman before Jesus the judge.

But then they discovered that they were all on trial as well.

When we rush to judgment, we often latch onto an indiscretion. This may include an offensive comment, an ignorant decision, a mistake dredged up from the past, or a moral failure. The offended party seeks to make the situation as public as possible and then operate as a jury, judge, and executioner.

In most cases the defendant has no advocate outside of herself. She can rally for herself, but this only invites more stones and abuse. Succumbing to the demands for cancellation is the fastest path to relief. The mob makes certain demands and establishes the terms of the sentence.  At best the defendant may need to retract a comment, apologize, and perform some form of penance. In some situations, she may need to forfeit her position or platform. In this latter scenario she experiences the death of her influence and vocation. Some find themselves peppered with pebbles and others are buried in boulders. In either situation the mob usually wins.

John 8, shows us what happens when advocates for judgment drag people to Jesus. The adulterous woman was guilty of her sin and subject to punishment. It’s possible that all the scribes and Pharisees were guiltless as it specifically relates to the sin of adultery. In their minds they had moral high ground on this woman due to their own track record regarding sexual purity.

But Jesus isn’t interested in their standard. When we bring a sinner before the living standard of perfection and demand justice, we discover that our own indiscretions are uniquely exposed in the light of his holiness. Jesus stated that anyone “without sin” could step up and hurl a stone at her (John 8:7). Notice he made no mention of those without “sexual” sin. The standard for him was sin. Period.

Stones start to drop from hands.

Interestingly, the oldest men release theirs first. Eventually they all walk away. Perhaps Jesus’s standard reminded them of their own greed, hatred, racism, misogyny, self-centeredness, lies, pride, covetousness, idolatry, hot tempers, lust, and pettiness. In any case, each of them recognized they had no moral right from which they could hurl their condemnation. They were convicted that they too could find themselves in the center of an angry circle if others only knew their sins and darkest secrets.

This is instructive for the Body of Christ today. Our griefs with one another should always be funneled through Christ and the cross first. Sin consistently knocks us out of alignment with one another individually and communally. The gospel is a rallying point for restoration and reconciliation. The cross is a magnet for wayward sinners to find themselves again.

In Galatians 2 we discover how Paul confronted the sin of Peter. Previously, Peter and Barnabas had committed favoritism and racism when they physically separated from the Gentile believers as soon as James and his Jewish counterparts arrived on the scene. Peter’s sin was magnified because of his platform as an evangelist and apostle.

Paul states that Peter’s “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Peter’s sin was against fellow believers but also in opposition to the gospel itself. Paul confronted Peter publicly in Antioch. But from the text we can see that his desire was not to shame or humiliate Peter—merely to cancel him. On the contrary, his desire was to confront Peter’s sin and call him back to repentance and realignment in the gospel.

This approach to dealing with sin that is personal and public in nature is so different from cancel culture today. If Scripture is the standard we use to navigate relationships and the place we go to discover our collective identity, we find little margin for what is often called “cancel culture.” The Bible informs us that Christians are members of the “same Body.” While measures may need to be taken to preserve the truth, especially in primary matters, when members of our church are not operating appropriately, we also pursue measures for healing, wholeness, and realignment. We do what it takes to bring them back into condition where they are sound and benefiting the entire body. This is not to say that there are never consequences for sin, especially for those in positions of influence. Some sin is disqualifying for public ministry. But these situations need to be influenced by Scripture more than culture.

Using the metaphor of the Body, cancel culture is a form of cannibalism where biting and devouring an unruly member sates the appetite more than brings about restoration. Cancel culture prefers expedited amputation to the slower path of restoration and reconciliation.

The gospel reminds us that all of us, bereft of Jesus, deserve eternal cancellation. No one has moral high ground from which to throw stones. Only one innocent man was ever canceled. Throughout His ministry antagonists worked hard to cancel Christ’s platform, credibility, and followers. He finally allowed an angry and riotous mob to abuse him and violently murder him. He willingly entered the crucible of human vitriol and accusations even though his track record was spotless, and all his motives were pure. He humbly embraced cancellation so that we could receive acceptance. The stones that we deserved were hurled at him so that we could walk away free. Therefore, we should bring our brothers and sisters before the mercy seat of Jesus before we drag them before the firing squad. In the glory of Christ’s holiness, we find hope for reconciliation and the clarity to drop the stones from our own hands.

In John 8, when Jesus finally stood to his feet after writing in the sand, he asked the adulterous woman if anyone condemned her. She told him no. He then said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:10). He could free her and say that she was no longer condemned because he was mere days away from accepting condemnation on her behalf. We too should be people who continue to press our brothers and sisters towards the glory of the cross in lieu of pursuing retribution via cancellation.

But what about the obstinate and unrepentant? Thankfully, Scripture creates a path for church discipline for those who refuse to repent. In some instances, we are encouraged to break off ties with someone who continues to transgress, harm, or oppress without remorse or changed behavior (Matthew 18:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). There are relationships that are toxic, abusive, and oppressive. But cancelation is the exception and not the norm. There is far more Scriptural ink concerning the pursuit of reconciliation, restoration, and realignment than there is concerning breaking off relationships.

Calling people to repentance will always be harder work than canceling them. It requires humility, patience, assuming the best of others, and sometimes an other-worldly ability to forgive. Thankfully, the Lord Himself ultimately brings people to repentance. That’s his work. Sometimes repentance is a process as opposed to a moment. Justice can be a journey. In the meanwhile, as a Body, we are called to pursue wholeness and unity.

In Luke 7 we see Jesus with another sinful woman. As in John 8, the Pharisee is appalled to have her in their presence. Christ reminds him, as she anointed His feet with oil, that “her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). To the degree that we understand how much we’ve been forgiven is to the same degree that we can drop our stones and love even our enemies well.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that the Lord would graciously reveal any stones you threw at someone “before” ever attempting to confront them in love. When He does, pursue steps of repair with that person.
  2. Thank Jesus for the ways He absorbed the “stones” of condemnation that we deserved and ask Him to give you a generous heart towards the offenses of others.
  3. Pray for discernment on when to distance yourself from unrepentant and abusive people and when it’s appropriate to pursue them under the banner of grace.

 

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Author

  • Ben Sciacca

    Ben Sciacca serves as the Director of Leadership Development at Desire Street Ministries (www.desirestreet.org). He has lived and served in under-resourced communities for over twenty years. He received his BA in history from Wheaton College and a master’s in educational leadership from Covenant College. He is the author of the story Meals from Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence (NavPress). He speaks, teaches, and writes on topics of reconciliation, justice, and the gospel. He, his wife Sara, and their four children live in Birmingham, AL. Connect with Ben on Twitter @iamJudahBen.

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