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Caught Between Love and Law

by Greg Howell

At an early age I had a very strong sense of right and wrong. I never told lies, and I followed the rules (or at least made absolutely sure I didn’t get caught). But this took a lot of effort, and it annoyed me to no end when I saw someone else doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing.

A fine example of this was my younger brother Doug. Sometimes he would make high-dive jumps off of our bunk bed right on top of my latest Lego creation. Other times he would sneak an extra cookie from the jar at dinner. Regardless of how big or small the infraction, I made sure that my parents always knew when Doug was trying to get away with something. One night I noticed that he was only poking at his dinner. He’d been warned several times to keep eating, but then I saw him stealthily sliding bits of the meal to the dog under the table.

“Look at what Doug is doing!” I cried with indignation.

My mother leaped from the table, grabbed Doug’s arm, and started to haul him away for the inevitable punishment. I settled back down with a smugness that only comes from seeing justice served on those who deserve it. Just as the fork was reaching my mouth, I was suddenly tugged out of my chair and propelled to join my brother.

“What? I didn’t do anything; he did!”

“You’re the one who is constantly tattling on him, so you’re getting punished as well!” my mom retorted, as I was dragged off.

Why, I ask, was that fair? Because of my attitude, or because my parents could tell I was enjoying it? Maybe it was both. In John 8:1-11 we have a classic story that is usually referred to as “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” The story has been widely written and preached on as a supreme example of God’s grace and wisdom. But for me, as someone who needs to see justice served, it has always irritated me a bit.

Jesus, when confronted by a group of Pharisees with a woman they have caught in the act of adultery, is given a choice. “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?” (John 8:4, 5).*

The next verse makes it clear that the Pharisees were setting a trap to accuse Jesus. But accuse Him of what, exactly? To figure this out, we actually have to look in the previous chapter, John 7. Jesus enters the Temple during a high Jewish festival, the Feast of Tabernacles. He begins to teach publicly in the courtyard of the Temple, and the crowds flock to Jesus because His teachings are unlike anything they’ve ever heard.

Some said, “Surely this man is the prophet,” and others said, “He is the Messiah.” This obviously didn’t sit well with the priests, because Jesus wasn’t holding to their party line. They could sense that the people were gravitating to Jesus instead of them, and they began to look for a way to discredit Him in front of the admiring crowds.

Jesus basically had two possible responses to their question. He could say, “Let her go, God’s mercy does not condemn,” but He would have contradicted the Law of Moses and lost credibility. Or He could say, “You are correct, take her away,” and He would be perceived as heartless and cruel. Jesus, however, went with option three.

“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, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin 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” (John 8:6-9).

This interaction has been endlessly debated. What was Jesus writing? Some say it was a copy of the commandments; some say it was a list of the Pharisees’ sins. There’s a clue, though, based on Jesus’ short response and those Pharisees who left first. It is possible that Jesus was writing down a portion of the law found in Deuteronomy 17:6, 7. This states that in the case of a person condemned to death, there must be two or more witnesses against the accused. If the witnesses are examined, and found to be lying or distorting their testimony, then they are to receive the punishment instead of the accused.

Jesus, in asking for those without sin to throw the first stone, was not saying that only sinless people are allowed to condemn sinners; He was warning these Pharisees that He knew they were not truthful witnesses. This warning was apparent, first to the oldest Pharisees, and then to the younger. Why? Because the older Pharisees had studied longer and knew the law that Jesus referred to much better than their younger peers.

Finally, when all the Pharisees had realized their predicament and fled, Jesus reached down to the woman before Him and asked, “ ‘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 8:10, 11). Now, here is where my younger self’s sense of justice flares up a bit. I hate to see someone wrongly accused and punished, but this woman was still in the wrong! Jesus just throws out the whole law here . . . in favor of grace? As the only nonmalicious witness, doesn’t He still have some obligation to the law? She never even says she’s sorry or admits to doing something wrong, but Jesus brushes it all under the carpet with nothing but a slap on the wrist?
Actually, no. Jesus does something extraordinary here. In asking the woman “Where are your accusers?” Jesus is bringing up the rest of the death sentence law. Condemnation can come only at the hand of two or more witnesses; if there are fewer than two, then the trial is dismissed. (Deuteronomy 17:6) Far from ignoring the justice of the law, Jesus uses it to save the woman before Him.

The amazing thing about God’s grace isn’t that He has the capacity to forgive people for things they’ve done wrong—it’s the fact that He’s capable of being true to both the law and mercy. He’s the perfect balance between judgment and grace, punishment and mercy. He finds that middle ground, and in so doing He opens up the door for all of us to come before Him, the faithful witness (Revelation 1:5), and receive the grace and forgiveness that we all so desperately need.

For me, Jesus shows clearly that my desire for justice, both then and now, is only half of what God wants to see me crave. This incident shows that my desire for justice is not wrong, but the reason I desire it may very well be. If I’m honest, sometimes I want to see someone “get what they deserve.” Or maybe I’m angry because something on the scale of war and genocide needs to be atoned for. The truth of it is, whether personal or national, the desire for justice is only half of the antidote that God asks us to inject into our souls. “What does the Lord require of [us]? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8).

I want to be the kind of person who is able to humbly follow this dusty Rabbi down the paths of both justice and mercy, no matter how hard the road may turn out to be.

* Scripture quotations in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Greg Howell is a pastor in Washington, and with his wife has coauthored a teen devotional titled Fusion. He prefers to spend his time snowboarding, behind a camera, or running around like a crazy person chasing his four kids.


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