She was terrified and mortified. She was dragged out of bed where she had been with someone other than her husband, and brought by an angry mob to stand before Jesus. She was terrified because she knew the penalty for adultery under Jewish law—stoning. And she was mortified because her sin was brought to the attention of the Righteous One. Even if she didn’t know he was the Messiah, she definitely was aware that she was in the presence of someone of holy stature.
It is doubtful she expected any other fate than death by stoning, with Jesus giving his approval. Yet, as she stood before him, his attention was not on her, but her accusers. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he told them. One by one, in humiliation, they dropped their stones and walked away. Then Jesus asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said.“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.
This beloved story from John 8 draws us in because of how compassionate Jesus is to a sinful woman. We cringe at the vicious actions of the men, using this woman as a way to trap Jesus and force him to cede to their demands for punishment of the woman’s sin. We applaud Jesus for his tenderness and compassion towards her.
This story has served as a template for many on how we are to treat sinners. When the culture or individuals arise to condemn sinful behavior, we are to counter with compassion. Noting that Jesus ate with “sinners” (Luke 5:29-32), we’re told we need to embrace those rejected or hated by society.
This is true, but it is not the whole truth. Jesus did express compassion for the adulterous woman, and he did dine with those viewed by the religious leaders as people to avoid. But he also said to the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”And he spoke of those with whom he ate as sinners who need to repent. What seems to be missing in the emphasis on compassion is an equal emphasis on the need for repentance.
The United Methodist Church recently held their International General Conference where they debated and then voted against sanctioning same sex marriage and the ordination of any LGBT person. This has caused an uproar among churches in the western world, who have for many years approved such ordinations. A number of my social media friends have also expressed anger and astonishment that the UMC could take such a large step backwards. They are grieved for those they know who identify as LBGT and express compassion for them in light of what they view as churchwide condemnation.
What’s interesting about this particular debate is that it was the UMC churches in Africa, which represent far more people than those in the US, who raised the strongest objections to LBGT ordination and same sex marriage. It is a similar situation as that of the Episcopal/Anglican Church a few years ago, where a number of churches placed themselves under the authority of an African bishop because the AEC was supporting same sex marriage and LBGT priests.
We in the West have a reputation around the world of arrogance. We are viewed as thinking we are enlightened and the rest of the world should follow. This is particularly true in the matter of LBGT issues. Many western churches have promoted their “progressiveness” as the true way to follow Jesus. Yet, many churches in the world have begun to push back on this, citing the Scriptures as their compass in navigating what they see as the imposition of western viewpoints on biblical commands. I wholeheartedly agree.
Watching the transformation of the American Church over the past 25 years, it is clear that repentance is no longer in vogue among many. Compassion has become increasingly defined, not only as acceptance of people’s sinful lives, but endorsement of however they choose to live. Much of this was accelerated by the media attention on the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, whose vile protests I witnessed firsthand several times. They were terrible and deserved condemnation, but the result was that many felt obligated to compensate for such treatment by offering complete acceptance of all who cite the LBGT community as their own.
But here is the thing. Jesus, too, witnessed the terrible treatment of those living openly sinful lives by the religious people. How did he respond? This is a crucial question that must be answered honestly, not through a presumptive filter that love is only accepting people as they are. Jesus indeed accepted the sinner, but it is a bridge too far to claim he viewed their sin as something that need not be addressed nor from which they need to repent. The Gospels are very clear on this. He condemned the treatment of the marginalized in the 1st Century, but he never condoned their sin.
This is why many churches around the world are opposing the changing views of sin among their brothers and sisters in the West. It is a departure from biblical teaching. They are not opposed to compassion; rather, they are opposed to compassion unguided by truth.
There is another story told by Mark where Jesus is questioned by a rich man:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:17-22 NIV)
Note that Jesus had love for the man and, as a result, told him he needed to give away all his wealth if he wanted to be a disciple. The man walked away disappointed because Jesus didn’t tell him what he desperately wanted to hear—that he could keep all his wealth and still have eternal life. However, it was Jesus’ love for the man that compelled him to expose the man’s sin—his love for money more than God.
Today, many Christians have a very difficult time following the Lord’s example. They are too afraid of exactly what this man did—people going away disappointed. Or being rejected by people who insist on getting what they want or else.
Acceptance or even endorsement of sinful lifestyles may be framed as love and compassion, but it is clearly not how Jesus loved or demonstrated compassion. His love was based on what the person needed, not necessarily on what they wanted. His compassion was deep toward those who were marginalized and treated poorly, but it never ignored sin or the need to repent of it. His love for them could never allow that.
© Jim Musser 2019