"Follow justice... so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you."
- Deuteronomy 16:20
The Sunday School lesson that morning was about justice, and the discussion was lively. Specifically, we compared our judicial system today with the one God instituted with the Children of Israel just before they entered their "Promised Land" 3,500 years ago. There was much to compare.
Our text was the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, which means, appropriately, "The Second Law." It had been 40 years since God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in that dramatic scene in two acts on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 and 34). But now, as Moses nears the end of his leadership and his life, he has gathered the people together for a series of farewell messages or, in reality, a summary of God's messages to his people throughout their wilderness journey. By the end of chapter 16, Moses tells them how to set up a judicial system.
Some of his instructions sound like they were copied from the constitution of Any County, USA: "Appoint judges... in every town... (who) shall judge the people fairly" (verse 16:18). But, as chapter 17 unfolds, we read an astonishing section about how, in certain cases, the people may mete out their own justice before it reaches the level of the courts. Following a list of offenses under the catch-all, "doing evil in the eyes of the Lord," comes an explicit method for punishing the offender - once it has been proven that "the detestable thing has been done" (17:2-4). Execution was the norm; stoning was the method. But how guilt was determined, and who got to be the primary executioner, were quite shocking to us modern folks.
"On the testimony of two or three witnesses, a (man) shall be put to death... (and) the hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death" (17:6-7).
"Wait a minute!" our class erupted almost in unison. "Only two witnesses; not a jury? Who's to say those two or three people didn't just gang up on someone they didn't like and, armed with the law, took matters - or stones - into their own hands?"
Fast-forward to the New Testament and you may find someone else with a similar objection to that system or, at least, to the motive behind it. In what the Apostle Paul later called "a more excellent way" (I Corinthians 12:31), Jesus, also armed with the law, makes a dramatic change in the way that law is carried out when, "the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring in a woman caught in adultery" (John 8:3).
It's a familiar and poignant story. The crowd, already clutching their stones, await the anticipated signal to let them fly toward the "detestable" woman. But instead of telling the accusers to begin the execution, Jesus simply says, "If anyone is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."
Several years ago I was attending a worship service when the pastor made the customary request for us to rise as he read the Gospel portion of his Scripture lesson. That day the reading was about this very adulterous woman in the eighth chapter of John. But he didn't want us just to stand there. Through the medium of mime, we were to become the crowd gathered around Jesus and the woman. But first we had to set the scene:
"Reach down and pick up your stones... slowly now, raise your hand high over your head... and freeze!"
Only then did he begin to read the story, which about 300 "frozen" stone throwers will never forget, especially when we are tempted to take the law into our own "hands" and hurl literal or symbolic stones at those for whom forgiveness may be more judicious than judgment.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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