Jesus 2020: Criminal Justice

Scripture: John 8:3-11

Some people choose politics. You’ve probably known some of these people in your life – from an early age, they’re shaking hands and making deals and charming people into doing what they want. I’m not knocking that; these are gifts and skills that can be used for good! Sometimes people with a lot of money or some fame decide to go into politics as their life’s next adventure. You can probably think of some of those people too.

For some people, though, politics chooses them. These are people who never saw themselves as politicians, or wanted to be one. Instead, they meet a person or have an experience that leads them to be involved in a cause. Maybe, for example, you never so much as went to a PTA meeting until your special needs kid wasn’t having their needs met in school, and before you know it you’re running for School Board, not just for the sake of your own kid, but for every kid who deserves not to be overlooked.

This fall, in the leadup to our upcoming national election, we’re talking about times in the Gospels that Jesus gets political. This week’s story seems like a good example of a time when Jesus finds himself in the middle of a political conflict that chooses him.

Don’t get me wrong – Jesus has been having it out with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees – for a while already at this point in the story. They don’t just randomly walk up to him one day and demand that he play judge and jury in this adulterous woman’s case. I doubt that Jesus was born in flesh just to be a thorn in the side of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, to be honest, but if that’s what loving God’s people and proclaiming God’s just, inclusive kingdom demands, then he’s not going to walk away from that fight.

It happens one morning when Jesus is teaching in the Temple. Some religious leaders come to him with a question about the Law. They haven’t come alone. They’ve brought a woman with them, and they unceremoniously push her in front of him and say, “This woman was caught in the *very act* of committing adultery.”

I imagine him looking up, surprised, taking a moment to recognize what is going on. Then he realizes, and his eyes meet theirs.

“The Law says we should stone this woman,” they say. “How about you? What do you say?”

It’s a trap. The Law does indeed say that both parties caught in adultery should be stoned. That is no longer the customary route for dealing with such things, in Jesus’ time. And they haven’t brought the required witnesses for a real trial. But if he gets into the legal minutia, he’s already lost.

He can say no, and reveal that he does not actually honor the Law. Or he can say stone her, and reveal something much worse about himself.

Jesus bends down, and begins to write.

You can almost feel the scene, which is already rife with tension, start to get awkward. What is he doing? Is he going to answer? Did he hear the question? They keep questioning him, but you can sense them getting nervous, because already he isn’t playing into their hand. He keeps writing. Finally he looks up and says, those famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone.” And he bends down to write again.

One by one, they walk away. Jesus is left alone with the woman before him and he says to her in what I hear as almost mock confusion, “What happened to everybody? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

The woman, probably still shaking, says, “No,” and Jesus says, “Neither do I.”

I was going to preach this sermon about the value of mercy – the mercy Jesus shows to this presumably sinful woman. After all, the passage ends with him telling her to go and sin no more. Mercy can be a political act. In fact, it very often is. It can be political on a very local level – you may have experienced this if you’ve ever reconciled with a family member only to feel the wrath of another. It can be political on a more cultural level – can this latest politician or celebrity be forgiven for the offensive thing they once did or said, or should they be #canceled for good? Or what about when a president issues a pardon – to a friend, or someone on death row, or someone convicted of a high-profile crime?

How about this woman? If Jesus acquits her, does he effectively say that adultery is fine? That her sin doesn’t matter, that it hasn’t hurt anyone?

And yet if he condemns her, what does that say about God’s mercy? Does the punishment, in this case, match the crime? Is there room left in her story for redemption?

I was going to preach that, but the fact is that’s not quite what this story is about, is it? This is a story about power, and who has it, and how they use it. Which is, of course, also political.

I have to wonder what this woman’s story was. We have no way of knowing if it’s true, if she was in fact caught in the very act itself; if the religious leaders are acting on the accusation of a jealous husband; if they simply grabbed an unsuspecting woman out of nowhere to play their little game with Jesus here.

It’s possible she didn’t really have a choice in the encounter. It’s possible if we knew her story, we might understand a little better.

It’s possible it was just true, of course. It’s possible this woman was as guilty as the day is long.  The details don’t really matter, because in the end, her guilt or innocence is not really the issue in this story.

Who are the real guilty ones in this scenario? The ones who tried to use her as a pawn.[1]

And maybe that’s the sticking point when we talk about mercy sometimes: we want to forgive and forget, to justify, without addressing any of the deeper issues of power and injustice that are part of a situation.

I recently started reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. It’s about the mass incarceration of black men in the US. One point she makes is that our definition of crime itself isn’t necessarily neutral. In fact, she says, “what gets defined as crime, and who gets surveilled and punished, generally has more to do with the politics of race and class than the harm that any particular behavior or activity causes.” For example, big banks in the leadup to the Great Recession of 2008 committed fraud, bribery, rate-rigging and all sorts of things that ended up leaving 44 million people in poverty. Some banks had to pay fines, but few of the upper-class, white-collar people involved actually went to prison.[2]  Yet a poor person who robs a liquor store is likely to be siphoned off into a system where they never fully recover their ability to work, vote, and create a life for themselves.

We can talk about mercy for the person who robbed the liquor store; that was a decision someone made, and likely not a good one; but if all we talk about is whether they can be forgiven or redeemed, we’ve already lost the game. What we should be talking about is people with power using that power to put themselves in the right and keep others in the wrong; and that’s where Jesus shines the spotlight here. Jesus is always on the side of those who don’t have power. And nothing makes Jesus madder in the Gospels than the hypocrisy of the elite who do.

“Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone”: with this he turns the accusation around on the ones who culturally and politically have the power to define crime and sin.

Perhaps we would do well to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Perhaps we would do well to see things this way, when the crime of resisting arrest brings the sentence of a knee to a neck, when destruction of property meets destruction of life.

So I decided not to make this a sermon about mercy. And yet it is about mercy, right? Because in the end, a woman walks free who might not have. We may not know all the details of her case, but Jesus doesn’t deny that she has made a choice; he doesn’t deny that it is sin. What he says is that her choice, if she has indeed made it, need not be the end of the story.

Maybe the bigger question, though, is this: can there be mercy for those who would have stoned her?

I think there can be. I hope there can be. Surely we see throughout the Bible that God’s mercy is big enough to be surprising and even offensive. But grace is not cheap. It can never simply be a matter of papering over the past. It can never simply be a matter of saying we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God while the powerful still bring the powerless to trial.

Jesus won’t play our games.

But he does invite us to imagine that things could be different, that the structures of power we know so well might even one day be reversed, that mercy might one day be willingly extended from the powerless to the powerful; that we might claim God’s mercy for ourselves, even as we extend it to others, equals in the eyes of God.

“Go and sin no more”: these are words of new beginning for the adulterous woman, and for her accusers, and for us, too. Go, and see this world through the eyes of Jesus.


[1] Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation: John, p. 97: “The actual issue in the story is the far greater guilt of the accusers than the woman.”

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 10th Anniversary Edition, p. xli

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