Faith In Real Life Blog
Do Justice: “Recognize Injustice”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2023
53 Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir. And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
We are starting a four-week series on Justice and this week we are looking at ‘recognizing injustice’. This passage provides valuable insight into the nature of justice and the roots of injustice.
Some of the first reactions to this passage in FIRL concerned gender justice. Why was the woman brought forward for judgment and not the man? The scriptures say the woman was caught in the very act of adultery. That by definition means the accusers knew who the man was. Yet there is no mention of him. He gets a free pass, but the woman is at risk for death. The second wave of first reactions started asking: “Is stoning an appropriate (just) punishment? Finally, we struggled with “does this passage mean that since we are all sinners, we cannot make judgments?” Must we walk away when confronted with egregious sin? What is a just response to a mass shooter? As usual, familiar biblical truths become very complicated when we try to apply them to real life. We can stay tangled in this scripture for a long time. In order to begin to parse out these questions, I want to focus first on what it means to be just. Then we’ll look at recognizing injustice.
Traditionally in Judaism, there are 613 commandments, headlined by the decalogue—the ten commandments. Scholars have spent thousands of years trying to determine what these commandments mean in real life to follow them. There are stern prohibitions against coming into contact with blood. Does that mean an orthodox Jew cannot be a nurse. The answer is yes, they can. Religious interpreters make an exception to this law when human life is at stake. What does it mean to honor the Sabbath? Does ‘Thou shalt not kill’ apply to soldiers? —to abortion? The law seems clear. The application, however, is fraught with uncertainty and exceptions. Even ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is subject to interpretation and honest differences. How do we love someone who does harm and is unrepentant?
Religiously, the law has always been a guideline—not an absolute. But, unfortunately, obedience to the law often has been used as a litmus test for justice. Basing justice upon obedience to the law makes it possible to make distinctions between the ‘clean and unclean’; the ‘saved and the unsaved’—or in modern parlance—the ‘good guys and the bad guys’. It allows us to avoid the difficult questions of discernment and worse, it creates rationalizations for self-righteousness. When such litmus tests are applied, we sow the seeds of injustice.
Micah 6:8 reads: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Obedience and legalism cannot substitute for justice. Justice must always include mercy and humility. Failure to include those attributes leads to self-righteousness and injustice. Were our revolutionary forefathers heroes when they disobeyed England or were they insolent, unruly and finally treasonous subjects. What about the Viet Cong or the fighters in the Ukraine? It depends upon who is writing the history. Many of our obvious ‘truths’ are not obvious at all if we give up our personal certainties and see the world through other eyes. Jesus said that it was ok to heal on the Sabbath. He was certainly violating the law. But I’m pretty sure the people he was helping were not too concerned with the law.
In real life there is a big difference between feeling convicted by an idea or a belief and being right. A few years ago, my wife kept complaining to me that I was pulling to the right as I drove into the garage. I found her comments irritating. I did not need a back seat driver. I was pulling in as I always had. Unfortunately for me, when I got out of the car, it was obvious the car was not lined up properly. It was angled to the right (making it difficult for my wife to open the passenger door). Oops. My certainty was based upon my perceptions. My eyes said one thing, but when I saw it from another perspective, my eyes had deceived me. This is a humbling thing to learn. We can only start with our perception, but we must always remember our way is not THE way.
One of the problems of being less than God, is that there are always possibilities beyond our own experience and perceptions. When we claim certainty, we leave out the possibility of God. I am quite sure that first century values were not particularly concerned with gender equity—much less gay rights. The church has been struggling for many divisive years with these issues. Can women be elders? Can women be ordained? What about gays or trans people? For some, allowing such things is a dilution of the faith clearly written in the Word of God. For others it is a statement of faith founded in the belief that faith is always in a process of re-forming. Likewise, I think it is fair to say that most modern day Christians agree that stoning someone for adultery is an inappropriate punishment. But what kind of sanction should there be? How many second chances do adulterers get? What if you are married to one? It gets messy fast. It takes a great deal of faith to realize what Paul meant when he wrote: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Jesus taught a revolutionary evolving understanding of God. He was loved for it and he was feared for it. That is the context for this scripture passage. The scribes and the Pharisees were seeking to trick Jesus. They were looking for a way to prove him wrong so they could bring charges against him. The test was which law Jesus would defer to. The Romans had sole authority over matters of life and death and the Law of Moses demanded death for the crime of adultery. Would Jesus honor the Law of Moses making him subject to Roman arrest or would he defer to Roman authority which would subject him to sanctions from the Jewish authorities.
The narrative is not about adultery; it is about self-righteousness. When Jesus told them “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,’ he was talking to people who at that very moment were breaking the law. The scribes and Pharisees were not interested in what was just. They were interested in proving themselves right. They were interested in diminishing Jesus. Jesus exposed their certainty and their self-righteousness by showing mercy.
Notice Jesus’ care for the woman is offered first. It was not conditional upon her going and sinning no more. We are left with an embarrassing unconditional grace. We may crave it but we usually have a hard time offering it. Until we know that about ourselves, we will spend way too much time on what people deserve—whether that is reward or punishment. Jesus refuses to condemn the woman for breaking covenant and Jesus refuses to condemn us for breaking covenant. For a Christian, justice begins with the faith claim that we are all children of God. We are called to love and respect others because we have been offered love and respect—in the full knowledge that we answer that call badly. Jesus simply says, ‘Neither do I condemn you’ and directs us to life pointed toward love instead of away from it.
Insisting we are right is not loving. Insisting on ranking people is not loving. These are the sinful behaviors that literally lead to death. When we visited Israel a few years ago, my wife and I visited the Holocaust Museum. I was struck by how the museum presented the history of the Holocaust. Genocide began with name calling. Genocide began with pejorative names like ‘kike’, ‘shyster’, ‘shylock’. Such names allow people to view other people as less than. Such people deserved exclusion, punishment and ultimately extermination. In most cases we must dehumanize other people in order to do them harm. It is a lot easier to kill a ‘chink’ or a ‘gook’ than it is to kill a young father of two children. In a much more ordinary way, names like Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, Presbyterian and Baptist, all run the risk of becoming partisan value judgments rather than descriptions of differing ways to view the world. These partisan value judgments are self-righteous and sow the seeds of injustice.
Our faith is not about proving we are right. It is about seeing eachother as children of God. Losing sight of God’s wish for us will lead to injustice over and over again.
Give us the courage to make judgments in this world and protect us from our need to be right. Grant that we recognize the seeds of injustice that we plant every day. Grant that our judgments always include mercy and humility. Forgive and Sustain us.
Let it be so.