“I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice”
Yesterday’s worship service at our church was based on the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2-11. It’s one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture (I reflected on it recently here). It’s one of those texts where you feel like the main task of preaching is to simply say as little as possible by way of “explanation,” to simply get out of the way and let Mercy do its work. The story is the sermon. It is a concrete embodiment of Jesus’ words elsewhere in the gospels (borrowed from the prophet Hosea), “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
So, yesterday my words about the passage itself were relatively few. I did, however, attempt something of a remix of the story as an invitation to the communion table later in the service. A number of people have since asked about this, so I thought I would throw it up a lightly edited version of it here.
There was a woman caught in adultery. Or maybe it was a man caught in lust-fuelled greed. Or maybe it was the whole human race caught in the sin that so easily entangles….
And they were dragged in front Jesus for judgment by people who were experts in matters of religion and judgment.
The law says what we should do with such people… What do you say?
And Jesus looked at the religious experts, looked at all the people who were weighed down with heavy burdens, all the people entrapped by their sin.
He smiled at them because he loved them. All of them.
Jesus took a deep breath and said, What do I say? Well, I say, whoever is without sin is free to throw the first stone.
At this the crowd grew very confused and agitated. They began to scratch their heads and shuffle their feet. Before long, they were shouting at one other, unsure of what to do. The religious experts seized the opportunity presented to them, and began to whip up the crowd into a frenzy. He’s a blasphemer, he does not respect our Law, he shares meals with whores and tax collectors!
He is not who he says he is! He has no right!
Before long, there were scenes of such chaos and confusion, that it wasn’t even clear which of the people were the experts in religion and judgment and law and which were the “sinners” in the dock.
And gradually, everyone—the religious experts, the crowds, even the people who were once facing judgment… the whole human race, let’s say—eventually, they all turned on Jesus.
The law says, the law says…!! Over and over, they screamed! The law says what we should do with such people! What do you say?!
And then, Jesus turned his back on them. He walked slowly, sadly, a few paces away from the crowd. Then he turned to face them, and said,
Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice.
At this, the mob lost it, and they began to rain down stones upon Jesus. They threw and they threw, stone after stone, each one carrying with it all of their rage and self-righteousness, all of their fear and confusion, all of their hatred and scorn.
As the stones fell upon Jesus, breaking his body, he wept. And just before he died, he whispered these words, barely audible: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”