We are most like God when we choose to demonstrate mercy and forgive.
You probably are familiar with the story. Jesus is teaching at the temple in Jerusalem. By this time, the Jewish religious leaders have positioned themselves firmly against Jesus. While Jesus is teaching one morning, a group of Pharisees bring a woman into the gathered crowd. They report that she had been caught committing adultery. Although her guilt never seems to be in question, she is nothing more than an expendable pawn in their scheme to undermine Jesus.
The Pharisees pose what they think is a straight-forward and air tight question that will put Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place. "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So, what do you say?" They thought they were clever.
If Jesus were to say, "stone her," then they could accuse him before the Roman governor of asserting an unlawful authority. The Jews were not permitted by the Romans to take such matters into their own hands. In addition, if Jesus had consented to this capital punishment, he would come off as severe with the people.
If Jesus were to say, "forget what Moses wrote," then they could accuse him of being against the law of their faith and contrary to their hero and lawgiver, Moses.
I imagine the parking lot discussions that took place among these Pharisees over a few days, until they put the finishing touches on their perfect plan to ensnare Jesus. Now they had hatched the plan, and it all seemed to be unfolding perfectly. Whatever answer he gave, it would work against him - so they thought.
We see by Jesus' example, that we don't necessarily have to answer every ridiculous question that may be posed to us. Instead, we read that Jesus stooped down in the middle of this incredibly tense moment and wrote on the ground. The Pharisees were probably thinking, "Ah, we got him! He doesn't know how to answer this one!" We don't know how long Jesus did this, but it appears that the Pharisees grew impatient. We read that they repeated the question to him. Then, in the climactic moment, Jesus stood up tall and said, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." With that, he stooped over and began writing on the ground again.
We don't know if these guys had already started passing out rocks or not, but we do know that they each, one by one, walked away in shame. What did Jesus write? If only we knew! Regardless, it seems that as they considered their own hypocrisy that they knew they were in the wrong. The woman seems to have been guilty; but they were the ones with evil hearts that Jesus exposed. If they had rocks in their hands, I can imagine the dull thud of them dropping to the ground as they walked away.
As the story resolves, we see the woman is still there among the awkward silence of the crowd and before Jesus. Jesus breaks the silence and asked the woman a question to which the answer is so obvious that it really isn't a question. "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She respectfully answers the question saying, "No one, Lord." Then, in an act of grace without compromise Jesus says, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."
From this story we learn a great deal about forgiveness. We see examples of both grace and hardheartedness. We see real people with real problems encountering Jesus.
The women is guilty of her sin (apparently, since Jesus told her to stop), and she is being used by others to accomplish a wicked plan of which she probably has no knowledge. We can only image her shame as she stood silently in front of this crowd as the instrument of the Pharisees' leverage and the object of the crowd's scorn. Did she know about Jesus? Had she heard anything about him at this point? Had she heard about his miracles? I think it's likely. We know that she needed both forgiveness and instruction. She gets both from Jesus. I like to think this encounter with the savior changed her. I hope she left there with a penitent heart and got her act together because of the grace she was shown.
The Pharisees model for us the state of being consumed with resentment and ill will. They were holding a grudge against Jesus. They wanted him to be silenced. Jesus had already called them out for their hypocrisy. He had spoke the truth to them about their hard hearts and evil motives. And they didn't like the attention that Jesus was drawing to himself. They seemed to fear that Jesus was on the verge of causing political unrest as well as threatening their favorable position with the people. All of this combined to lead them to an attempt to bring ruin down on him. He was the target for the rocks they wanted to throw. The woman was just a means for that end.
We see a woman who needs mercy and forgiveness, men who need to learn how to show mercy and be forgiving, and a savior who is merciful and forgiving.
But what I have observed in myself and others is a tendency to be like these Pharisees. We combine a self-righteous sense of being in the right with contempt for another who has hurt or threatens us. We soon find ourselves showing up with a rock in our hand looking for the opportunity to throw it. This happens because of a choice. We choose not to forgive. We choose to hurt.
When we choose to be dead set against another and not show mercy, understanding and forgiveness, we can expect to observe some typical symptoms to which we should pay attention.
1. A bitter spirit takes control.
That person that we have a grievance with evokes in us a resentment that becomes a toxin in our soul. This resentment festers into much more than simply an initial hurt or offense taken from a specific incident. It becomes a grudge. And that grudge becomes a cause.
2. We withdraw fellowship.
The festering, bitter spirit inevitable leads us to avoid the person who is the object of our resentment. We find that we can't stand to be around him because it stirs up that hostile feeling. We stubbornly refuse to take steps to reconcile; therefore, we try to avoid that negative feeling by simply abandoning our relationship.
3. We nurture a disposition of suspicion.
As a consequence of our resentment and bitter attitude, our carnal imagination takes over. This person can now do nothing good. Every action is suspect, and we are sure that this person's intentions and actions are always the problem. Of course, we're no longer speaking, so we can't really know.
4. We pick up a rock.
The resentment and bitterness in our spirit, combined with our own sense of self-righteousness, begins to justify our desire to see this person suffer. We may not literally want to throw a rock at his head (or maybe we do), but we will take the opportunity to run that person down with our words, and we may even look for an opportunity to cause difficulty for that person. At the very least we find ourselves wishing bad things for him or her.
Our goal should be to look like Jesus. In the story, Jesus is the model of wisdom, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. He neither gives the woman a pass on her sin, nor does he throw a rock. He silences the Pharisees by pointing out to them the hypocrisy of their action and the evil of their motivations. And before a watching crowd, He displays the nature of a gracious God.
Is it time to drop the rock? Is there someone with whom you have fallen into disagreement who now is your rival or enemy? Is there someone who hurt you, but you refuse to forgive? Is there a person that you are simply waiting, with your rock in hand, for that opportunity to let loose and cause injury? If so, you need to drop the rock. You need to do it to obey God. You need to do it to show mercy and be gracious. You need to do it for yourself.
When we think of our own sin, like Jesus directed the Pharisees to do, then we rediscover our own neediness, find humility, and strip ourselves from the pride that continues to prop up an unforgiving spirit.
God has called his children to be examples of love, mercy and forgiveness. This is how an unbelieving, but watching world knows that we belong to Jesus. Because when they see us, they see him reflected. They see us turn the other cheek. They see us forgive seventy times seven times. They see us forgive as people who have been forgiven of much. They see us as ministers of reconciliation and peace.
We can't wait until we feel like forgiving. Our selfish, sinful nature will win out every time if we follow our feelings. Forgiving others is a choice we make. And when we choose to forgive, the Holy Spirit will do a good work in us, in the other person, and in the situation. We must trust God and follow his word and Christ's example.
In all our relationships, and especially in the household of faith, we need to keep in mind what Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers. "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you"(4:31-32 ESV).
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