Last week we looked at how Jesus interacted with the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Jesus defended her from people who wanted to kill her — and she was guilty of a capital crime.
If we’re going to be like Jesus, we have to be ready to do the same.
This means that sometimes, we will protect people from the rightful consequences of their sinful actions.
Is that right?
No. No, it isn’t.
But there was nothing right about Jesus bearing our sins on the cross either, was there?
Earlier this week, I was reading the discussion between Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile on southern slavery and Wilson’s highly controversial writings on same. (That discussion, by the way, is how adults ought to interact, and I commend it to your attention.) In the course of the discussion, Anyabwile said something that caught my attention:
Notice how Paul keeps rattling his own chains of imprisonment in Philemon’s ears. Paul identifies himself repeatedly as the prisoner, the bound man, the one without freedom. He could have identified himself as the man of authority, the apostle, the one with right to exert himself over others. He nowhere does. That, I think, is instructive for how Christians should engage discussions involving oppressors and the oppressed. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice. [Emphasis added]
While I am not sure that I agree with every nuance of Anyabwile’s meaning in the context of that particular discussion, consider the statement as a broad generalization for a moment. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice.
We have framed these discussions in terms of “social justice,” and tactically, that was a good move. Who could be against justice?
Jesus could, and that ought to give us pause.
The debtor cries out under the weight of a crushing, debilitating debt. If only he could get some relief, he might be able to make a life for himself. A Christian takes up his cause, and cries out against the creditors, demanding social justice.
The creditors, in response, demand the justice of the debtor paying the debts he freely agreed to undertake. “Let your yes be yes,” they say. “Honor your word,” they say. Isn’t that just too?
“This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act! Moses taught us that such a person should be stoned to death. What do you say?”
Note that by “Moses” they mean “Yahweh, speaking from the glory cloud on Mount Sinai to Moses, who passed it on to us.” And don’t forget that they are right. Isn’t that just?
Of course it is.
But what does Jesus do?
He stands between her and her accusers, backs them down, and sets her free. Then He goes to the cross and dies for her sin. Justice is served, but mercy reigns.
We ought to spend less time talking about social justice, and more time investing our own resources in social mercy. May a creditor insist that the debt due him be paid, and be a good Christian? Sure. What would Jesus do? He would step in between the debtor and the creditor, and pay the debt Himself, thereby doing justly and loving mercy at the same time.
If you’re reading the Anyabwile/Wilson discussion, you’ll have noticed that Philemon figures heavily in it. Both parties agree that Paul effectively manumits Onesimus, and does so without coercing Philemon, but so far I don’t think anybody has paid much attention to the mechanism that allows Paul to achieve that end. “But if he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account.”
Whether Philemon ever insisted on Paul settling up is, of course, another question. As Paul notes, Philemon did owe Paul his very life. However, Paul puts himself on the hook for it, writing with his own hand, “I will repay.”
Paul learned from Jesus, and it shows. We ought to do the same.