I consider myself to be an evangelical Christian. The term is a rather controversial one these days. To many, it signifies bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and hatred.
It certainly doesn’t mean that to me. But I understand why people might think that way. And it makes me sad.
Some of us, as Evangelicals, have a lot to learn from Jesus.
In recent posts, we’ve been looking at the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. We’ve seen how the whole situation was likely a setup by the scribes and Pharisees to trap Jesus into a compromising situation. Would he invoke the death penalty, as the Law insisted?
Jesus turned the tables on them. Without contradicting the law of Moses, he simply invited those who were sinless to cast the first stone. No one did. No one could. And one by one, they all walked away.
There is but one final scene to play out in this mini-drama:
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”
She said, “No one, sir.”
Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (John 8:10-11, CEB)
We’re not told the woman’s response. There’s no deep expression of gratitude, no joyous praise, no promise to change her ways.
But what matters, the story seems to say, is not what she does. It’s what Jesus does. And what does he do? He insists on a life of righteousness in a way that doesn’t condemn.
That, I’m afraid, is the lesson many of us need to learn.
It’s perfectly natural for us to think in “us vs. them” categories: black and white, yes and no, true and false. Our brains are often impatient with ambiguity, and we need to know who the good guys and bad guys are. Anything that complicates that simple worldview is apt to make us anxious or even defensive.
Jesus’ opponents certainly tended to think that way. It wasn’t just Jews vs. Gentiles. The Pharisees could subdivide the Jews into those who knew and followed the Law — themselves! — and the ignorant, unrighteous rabble.
But Jesus made their world much more complicated. It was possible to uphold the righteousness of the Law without being legalistic. It was possible to know someone to be a law-breaker while extending them compassion and grace. And perhaps most importantly, it was possible to know oneself to be a law-breaker, to realize that the grace and holiness of God ultimately breaks down every us vs. them. We are all sinners. We are all dependent on mercy.
And we owe mercy to one another.
The hard question we must ask ourselves is, “At whom are we most tempted to throw stones?” This is not a question of erasing all distinctions between what is and isn’t righteous.
But it is a question of learning to be more and more like the compassionate and righteous Lord we claim to serve.