The Problem with Showing Mercy

Science fascinates me. I’m horrible at understanding most of it and I never excelled at the subject in school, but I sure did find it interesting. Science imagines outside the box, pushes past the limits of what we know, it dreams.

Isaac Newton was a physicist who formulated the laws of motion. It had several parts and I remember that it could be written mathematically in a way that always tripped me up, but what I gathered was this: an object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest. Which explains why it’s hard to get moving on Saturday after sleeping in and watching two hours of the Cooking Channel. The object (me) at rest wants to stay at rest.

Basically, motion begets more motion which begets more motion which begets more motion. It’s a law that says continuing is easy once we just start. Newton studied the physical universe as an expert in his chosen field, but it turns out that his laws are applicable to much more. Because grace and respect and courage and endurance are like that too. After you offer them once, it’s pretty easy to offer them again and again and again. All those virtues, the characteristics we hold in high esteem and try hard to achieve, are mostly about practice. It can be tough to exercise them at first, but keep practicing and you’ll get pretty good at it. We can see the fingerprints of this ‘motion equals more motion’ principal all over God’s word. How many times should we forgive someone? 70×7….in other words, a ton. How often does God think of us? The thoughts outnumber the grains of sand. How much mercy will God extend to us? A new supply every morning.

Mercy is no different. There is a story that believers often bring out as evidence when discussing the unrelenting mercy of Jesus, and for good reason. It’s found in the book of John, chapter 8. We learn that Jesus has been hanging at the Mount of Olives but then returns to the Temple in Jerusalem by morning, when there would have been a lot of activity happening. Many churches sit more-or-less in quiet emptiness during the week, with the majority of the action happening on Sundays, but the Temple was different. It was the hub of interaction. Biblical recitations happened daily and offerings were carried out by a tribe of priests who officiated at the altar. Those happened inside the inner court. But the outer court was always hoppin’. It held a market, and foreign currency was exchanged. Whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, the Temple was a monumental structure that served as the epicenter of life, playing a massive role in society. So it was busy. Very busy. On top of this bustle of activity, the crowd was extra-large because Jesus attracted a crowd. Where he went, people went. They wanted to hear what this man had to say.

This is important to know because a crowd provided the backdrop for something profound in the story: maximum humiliation. In the story, Jesus is teaching to a crowd when some other teachers enter the scene. These teachers were teachers of ‘the law’. They knew what the law said like it was their job, because it was their job. They were also hypocrites and pumped up on the authority that their positions gave them. So that particular morning, the teachers presented Jesus with a woman that the Bible says  was ‘caught in adultery’. In fact, some versions say ‘in the very act.’ That added emphasis should lead us to believe that this woman was taken by surprise at being discovered and likely pretty embarrassed. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest she had the chance to get dressed or make herself presentable. What’s worse, the act she committed had a steep penalty. The law stated this woman could have been stoned. We aren’t talking about pebbles. The punishment included the use of heavy rocks flung at the accused until the gruesome end. The woman is not given a name in the story. She was a pawn being used by the teachers to prove a point and catch Jesus in a no-win situation. The teachers, bent toward the stark, harsh rules of religion, asked Jesus for his opinion but didn’t count on his ability to extend a love that never fails to a woman they were content to throw away.

I could have been her. Not because I’ve committed adultery. No. But I know what fear and uncertainty and insecurity will lead you to do. I know that it’s easy to mistake a relationship with a man as that one thing that will finally fix you. I know the shame that comes with realizing you’ve given yourself away in an effort to find the missing pieces, only to realize that you’re more broken than ever before. I know what it’s like to feel the sting of humiliation, and of shame, and to watch the judgement pass through the eyes staring in your direction. That woman and I, we’re not so far apart. We could have been friends. We would have had a lot to discuss.

You probably know the way this story ends. Jesus implores the men who are without sin to chuck the first stone at her, but none of us are sinless and these men knew it. So one by one, they left, defeated. Jesus sends the woman on her way with the command to sin no more. It was unheard of mercy, unexplainable mercy. But the mercy was already in motion at that point. You see, at the urging of the teachers to give his opinion on the situation, Jesus knelt down and began to write in the dirt. That’s a pretty curious way to react and much deliberation has been had about exactly what it is that he was writing on the ground. It’s curious, indeed…and kind….and thoughtful….and respectful. Because Jesus being knelt down, writing in the dirt, meant his eyes had to stare at the ground…. his eyes shielded from what is not meant to be seen by a crowd of onlookers…in a demonstrative effort to protect the dignity of a deeply ashamed, and likely naked, girl. This woman, regarded as an immoral harlot with everything bad coming to her, was probably being gawked at by the crowd….but Jesus began to extend mercy immediately, before he even sent her on her way without punishment, and kept his gaze low and steady so he saw her with his heart instead of his eyes.

All that mercy heaped on top of mercy on top of more mercy. In just a few minutes, Jesus showed an unloved, unwanted woman all the things sought after by everyone. He honored he and protected her. He reinstated her lost dignity. Because that’s what unwarranted mercy does. It extends kindness. It redeems. It elevates. It covers. It restores. And mercy, given over and over again, creates a lifestyle of mercy, a lifestyle that glories Christ, a lifestyle that sins no more.

Those men opposed Jesus with fatal hostility for a whole bunch of reasons, but I suspect that what upset the men from the Temple most was that they knew what Isaac Newton would discover centuries later. Surely these teachers and Pharisees understood that people were drawn to Jesus because he oozed something vastly different from the carefully crafted and controlled school of thought they were touting to the people in their midst. People who are receptive to giving and receiving grace, kindness, respect and mercy are hard to control. That’s the problem with showing mercy. Once you start, it’s hard to stop.

 I don’t worry about being stoned for my bad decisions these days, but the times we live in are malignant in their own right. You can’t listen to the radio, watch television or read the news without encountering the onslaught. But Newton’s principal is still as true today as it ever was. Motion begets more motion, and mercy begets more mercy. Start, and you’ll find it very hard to quit.