Did you know that Jesus once stayed an execution? He actually decided to not do what the Mosaic Law said to do. The religious leaders brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, asking him, “The Mosaic Law says this sinful woman should receive the death penalty. What do you say, Jesus?” As we learned in the previous post, the religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus. But there was no execution that day. Instead, Jesus has an astounding response, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Not a single stone flew that day. What did happen is what we read in verses 8-9,
“Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”
Why did no one say, “Forget you, Jesus, we’re doing this anyway”? Is it possible that Jesus’ principle of self-reflective non-judgement toward others was more impactful than the human instinct to violence retribution? I think so. The religious leaders knew they had been bested. They knew that Jesus tapped into something deeper, something more in tune with the heart of God.
Jesus exploited their faulty use of the Law. They were focused on a punitive part of the Law, the judgment, and they were ignoring the heart of God. They were bent on a legalistic approach, something that they did quite well and quite often. In their minds, the more you can legislate morality, the better. Make rules for as much of life as possible, so that there is a clear-cut line separating the keepers of the rules and the breakers of the rules. Subjectivity and opinion and nuance are just trouble in their minds. Life will be better if we can punish rule-breakers, because the punishment will be a deterrent to any further rule-breaking.
This is the primary justification of the modern-day death penalty. How has that worked out for us? How often have we seen people unjustly on death row for years, decades even, only to be exonerated? How many innocent people have been executed? And further, has the rationale for the death penalty actually been effective? Has the imposition of the death penalty been a deterrent to crime? Given the amount of crime, and especially murder by gun violence, anecdotal evidence suggests that the death penalty has little impact. Here in John 8, Jesus shows us that you cannot legislate morality, you cannot scare people straight.
There is another reason the religious leaders try to legislate morality. They wanted to avoid the slippery-slope argument. The slippery slope argument basically says that if you do X, you will be much more inclined to also do Y, and then Z, and before you know it you’ll be so far gone, you’ll never come back from the Abyss. So therefore, you must go back up the slope aways. If you don’t want people to do X, you must make new rules that will keep them from U, V or W.
Let’s make this very practical. If you don’t want to become addicted to pornography, the slippery slope argument says, then you should not only delete your social media accounts, you should also get rid of your computer, smart phone and internet. It’s a slippery slope, if you get internet, soon enough you’ll be addicted to porn. So the legislate morality, let’s just make it a crime to have the internet. Abolish the internet! That will save our society!
But is that true?
The problem with the slippery slope argument is that it can be very misleading. Doing X does not always lead to Y. If you have the internet you will not automatically become addicted to porn. You might, but you might not. The slippery slope is, however, something to pay attention to. It would be wise, for example, if one has a predisposition to porn addiction, to consider that they might not be able to handle having the internet without any accountability measures. Options such as web filters, blockers or accountability software can be a helpful deterrent.
More importantly, though, we cannot rely on the slippery slope to help us become more like Jesus. Following rules does not transform our hearts to be more like the heart of Jesus. We cannot rely on laws and rules to help us become more like Jesus. Instead, we need to be changed inwardly, by the Spirit, growing the Fruit of the Spirit. This is why Jesus points us to the heart of the Father, a heart of self-reflective non-judgmental grace. That’s the posture that will help people actually desire to become more like Jesus. And then, following him, with a new heart, that will impact our life choices.
Think about it this way. Imagine if Jesus said, “We have to follow the letter of the Law. If we allow her to go unpunished, we be on the slippery slope to anarchy. Isn’t that what led our ancestors into rebellion against God and exile from the land? Stone her to death!” What would that accomplish? A life lost, as well as more people convinced about the legalistic, slippery-slope way of understanding God. It would be total loss for all, actually pushing people away from who God really is, away from what God’s heart really is.
Instead, Jesus presents a beautiful balance of self-reflective non-judgmental grace, removing condemnation from this woman who, if she really was caught in the act of adultery, was probably mortified, shamed, and feeling doomed. More than likely, she was heaping more self-loathing on top of the self-loathing and bad habit of looking for love in all the wrong places that was already the norm in her life.
In the next post, we’ll hear Jesus’ shocking response to this woman.