Mercy and the law

A friend sought me out for counsel after someone professing to be a brother accused him of adultery for remarrying several years after his wife ran off with another man and divorced him. He was deeply hurt and needed to talk, wherein our conversation naturally turned to judgment and mercy.

mercyAmong the scriptures we looked at was John 8:3-11, where the woman caught in the act of adultery was dragged out and thrown down in front of Jesus. Her accusers, with stones in their hands, said to Jesus “the law of Moses says she should be stoned – what do YOU say?” Jesus replied “if any of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone”. One by one they dropped their stones and left. When only Jesus and the woman remained, He addressed her. Though Jesus was without sin and therefore qualified to throw stones, He didn’t even pick one up. Instead, He said “neither do I accuse you – go and sin no more”.

The man who professed to be a brother, made the issue of my friend’s alleged sin, his business. In so doing, he effectively picked up a stone and hurled it, thereby doing the work of his father, the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10).

The man was wrong in so many ways. Individual sin is a matter between the Creator and His child. There are any number of places in scripture where the gist of the message is to “mind your own business”; whether it’s Jesus rebuking Peter for his jealousy of John saying “what’s it to you what I do with him? You follow me!” (John 21:18-22), or Revelation 22:11 which says “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy”.

When we focus on each other, our spiritual blindness is revealed. The man who made the accusation failed to notice that Jesus had washed my friend in the blood, clothed him in righteousness and made him a resident of God’s Kingdom. This I believe is why Paul admonished us to focus on things above, so that Christ might be lifted up from the earth (Colossians 3:1-2). If we take our eyes off of Christ and focus on one another, we run the risk of pronouncing as unclean that which God has made clean (Acts 10:15). Had the man looked with spiritual eyes, he would have seen my friend is IN Christ where there is NO sin or darkness.

The man cited old testament scripture, specifically one of the 10 commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” He maintained that the Law of Moses only permitted divorce during the betrothal period; after marrying, there is no cause for divorce, not even adultery. What the man failed to consider is whether betrothed or married, there is always a law against adultery. According to Leviticus 20:10, the adulterer and adulteress are to be put to death. If both adulterer and adulteress had been stoned in accordance with the Law, then my friend would have been a widower and thereby free to remarry. If indeed my friend was an adulterer by the Law, it is only because he showed mercy to his former wife and did not have her stoned as the Law requires. And so in a sense, my friend took her sin upon himself by showing her mercy.

Like so many things that the Lord shows me, simple truths are immediately apparent while the deeper things are revealed only with time and careful consideration. The subject of mercy and the Law of Moses is one of those deeper things the Lord has led me to consider. Jesus said:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you … have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Mat 23:23)

How many times had I read that passage and missed it? The Law of Moses provides for mercy from men towards men? I thought the Law only allowed God to grant mercy? After all, Psalm 62:12 says “mercy belongs to God”. Certainly that was the understanding of the men who dragged the adulteress in front of Jesus and cited the Law:

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10)

Not until Hosea 6:6 do we see a statement like “God DESIRES mercy not sacrifice.”

Mercy? There was Abraham, who pleaded and bargained with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. There also was Moses who stood in the gap, literally putting himself in harms way between God and the Israelites. And Joseph showed mercy to Mary when she became pregnant with Jesus, making plans to send her away, quietly, so that she would not be stoned. Any one of them could have simply stepped back, cited the Law which condemns sin to death, and watched while God destroyed the sinners.

What strikes me about Abraham, Moses and Joseph, is each of them aspired to be like God in pleading for and showing mercy to sinners.

Might one of the reasons God gave us the law be to FLUSH OUT the heart of compassion and mercy in His people – to move a few – a remnant – to aspire to God-like mercy; God knowing all the while that most men would HIDE behind the law and use it to bludgeon one another with its rules that no man can keep and harsh penalties for inevitable failure?

I’m mindful of a time 40 years ago, when my dad and I had a terrible falling out. Following a series of arguments after which I walked out on him, my dad called and said “I want you to forget about me.” And so I did, for a long time. Finally, the day came when I went to my dad and we reconciled. When I felt the time was right, I asked him what he hoped to gain by his statement “I want you to forget about me”. He said “I hoped you would get in my face and tell me NO WAY dad, I will NOT forget about you”. He wanted me to stand up, be strong and demonstrate my love for him. But if I simply forgot about him, then I was free to go about my life with a clear conscience, because after all, I did what he asked of me.

The memory of that experience with my dad, together with what the Lord has shown me from scripture concerning the Law and mercy, makes me wonder whether God hoped His people might face up to Him and say “NO WAY, God! I can NOT stone that sinner, because I AM ONE TOO!” I don’t think what I’m suggesting is so far fetched, since in Christ, God is molding us in His image; God of mercy, God of love.

And how absurd is it, this ‘sinners stoning sinners’? Where does it stop? Does the last sinner standing stone himself?