Why does God seem to vacillate between justice and mercy? Why can’t He just make up His mind? It seems he sits on a pendulum and swings arbitrarily between the two “extremes”. Some say He was pure justice in Old Testament times and then changed to pure mercy in the New. Others paint a picture of a stern unyielding God with Jesus as the only one standing between us and His undiluted wrath. I won’t even mention the doting grandfather some have made God out to be. How on earth are we ever to reconcile justice and mercy? Can they be reconciled anyway?
When a corrupt official goes from rags to riches, is God being just or merciful? When a Proverbs 31-look-alike woman finds herself presented with divorce papers, can we say God is just or merciful? Those are some tough questions, admittedly, so perhaps we ought to simplify things – let’s get an adulterous woman (sorry girls) and drag her to God i.e. let’s force His hand; let’s get Him to decide between justice and mercy, once and for all! Look sharp, for John 8 records the story of Pharisees who did just that.
Of course, as far as the Pharisees and religious teachers were concerned, they were just getting rid of a troublesome fellow (read John 7) by trapping Him with a woman. Their plan would either get him in trouble with the people (lax on sin) or with the Romans (only Roman officials could decree execution). These gentlemen, however, had forgotten one important point about catching someone in adultery: it takes two to tango. In their haste to trap Jesus, they had forgotten her partner in crime.
Jesus didn’t mention this because he didn’t want this unfortunate lass to get off on a technicality. Jesus was interested in more than springing a trap: he wanted to deepen their understanding of issues. This explains Christ’s actions…
“They said this to try and trap Jesus so they could condemn him. But Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. They kept on demanding an answer, so he stood up and told them, ‘Whichever one of you has never sinned may throw the first stone at her.’”(John 8:6-7 FBV)
How these words must have pierced the woman’s heart and painted smiles on the Pharisees’ faces. Pharisees in those times were considered the celebrities of righteousness so an adulteress surrounded by Pharisees who’d caught her in the act had very little hope for survival. Her immediate future consisted of being pushed off a double-story building by those who’d caught her and then crushed by a boulder thrown by the same (this was the rabbinical idea of humane execution). If by some miracle she survived this, she was to be stoned by the crowd. Was anybody more sinless than the Pharisees and religious teachers?
Whatever Jesus scribbled on the ground saved this woman from a rocky death because the “sinless” Pharisees went home in a hurry once they saw it. Here, Jesus acted his own admonition to not look upon things on the surface but to discern what is right (John 7:24). This brings the question, could it be that the dichotomy between justice and mercy lies not on God’s bosom but in our own superficial understanding?
Jesus was the only sinless one in that throng and so His actions would reveal how he viewed justice and mercy…
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Where are they? Didn’t anybody stay to condemn you?’ ‘No one did, sir,’ she replied. ‘I don’t condemn you either,’ Jesus told her. ‘Go, and don’t sin anymore.’”(John 8:10-11 FBV)
God’s mercy is no suspension of His justice but it is His justice applied to sinners. The same love that gave laws to protect from sin offers mercy to reclaim sinners. What we call the results of “justice” or “mercy” are really the results of how we choose to respond to God’s love. We see God’s mercy as a suspension of justice because we have projected our sin-twisted thirst for vengeance disguised as justice onto Him.
We see God not as He is but as we are but Jesus came to reveal God by showing us how He sees us: scared superficial sinners in need of restoration. So it is that by looking at ourselves through Jesus’ eyes we can learn the discernment that we need to see God as He is: not a schizophrenic swinging between justice and mercy but a loving Father who justly offers restoration (not just forgiveness) to his lost children.
John 8 is a story that acts out the very things that Jesus had said in the previous chapter. Superficially, the Jews seemed very pious but Jesus had said that none of them was keeping the law (John 7:19). God’s law is not a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things not to do. God’s law is ultimately the description of a character as seen in Jesus Christ, a character that doesn’t seek retaliation but restoration. It’s about time we stopped seeing justice and mercy as separate and realized they are both aspects of God’s character. Are we going to be superficial or discerning? We need to just make up our minds.