There are many things in life that depend on a smell test or an intuitive sense. When the religious hypocrites brought a woman before Jesus the legal prescription was simple, she was caught in sexual sin and deserved death according to the law of Moses. They knew of his compassion for sinners and had hoped to trap him. If Jesus spared her he would break the law, but if he condemned then he would be just like her judgmental accusers.
What happened next in that narrative totally upended their simplistic conception of the law and application. To them, it was all very black and white. They were very thorough in defining the limits, of their legalism, and this adulterous woman fell well outside the bounds of any gray area. But Jesus defied them. We don’t know what he wrote in the dust at their feet, but we do know that Jesus, in response to their demands for an answer, told them “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and that after this they left one by one.
Growing up in a fundamentalist sect, in the shadow of purity culture teachings, it was always about meeting expectations. If only you could follow the rules, then you might be accepted, then her dad (or your own) would be pleased and no longer harbor those often unspoken negative opinions. Sure, maybe those in this culture knew better than to be as open about their disapproval, like the men accusing the woman, but they still miss the point and will attempt to explain away the full significance of what Jesus did. To them, the goal is to be undefiled enough to cast the first stone.
Those blinded by a legalistic mindset only comprehend the letter of the law without ever understanding the spirit or true purpose behind it. When they are not onerously enforcing the technicalities of their own (often errant) interpretations of Scripture then they are carving out special exceptions for themselves and in all circumstances are missing the spirit or intent of the law. (Romans 2:29, 2 Corinthians 2:4-18) They see the law as a means to gain God’s favor or as means to gain rank on their more sinful neighbors rather than what it truly is.
First of all, the law was not established for Pharisees past or present to play morality police. Yes, we’re told to work out our own salvation. We need to confess our sins and admit our falling short as often as we do. But it is the role of the collective body of the Church to apply the law to others and not our own. In other words, we should stay in our lane, and use the law for introspection rather than as a hammer to beat over the head of our neighbors. Our obligation to others is to do as Jesus said and learn the meaning of the phrase, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Second, the law isn’t just an arbitrary set of rules to prove our worthiness to God. No, it is rather something established for our good and as a protection from harm. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was “made for man” and not the other way around, which is why he let his disciples violate the rules. In other words, the law is very practical, for our good, and can be bent when need be. Sure, we may not always understand the reasons and thus we should obey even when we do not, but there is always room for exception. This is what freedom in Christ entails—the ability to live by the underlying intent rather than only by the technicalities of written codes.
Those in the construction industry know about building inspectors who are ‘by the book’ to the point of being ridiculous. It isn’t actually making anyone safer. These types often lack hands-on experience, seemingly even basic comprehension of what makes a structure work, and they just make life harder for everyone. They can be technically correct, according to line three of page 395 of the code book, while still being clueless and unhelpful. This kind of expert has the letter of the law and lacks the spirit. This is to say that they have useless knowledge that makes them feel qualified when, in reality, those in the field know better.
And religious fundamentalists all end up like these building inspectors, hung up on details and never adding any real value to the project. They condemn everyone around them, in violation of the commandment of Christ, while they themselves have a beam in their own eyes. They think they are moral people because they can follow a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” and yet fail to comprehend the meaning of “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Indeed, we may not allow our children to cross the street without permission, it may also be jaywalking to cross in certain areas, and yet would the legal statute matter if there was an urgent need to cross?
Politicians and lawyers can find ways to be technically ‘legal’ while also immoral or violating the principle of the law. They can also point out when others do what is right when it is technically illegal or when others fail to dot an ‘I’ or cross a ‘T’ as is required. But they fail to apply the law correctly because they miss the actual intention or purpose behind the law. They do not know the Jesus who makes even our righteousness seem like filthy rags and are trying to earn God’s favor instead.
This is to be lost, like the rich young ruler, who was still trying to save himself through his own works. You can do everything right according to the Scripture (or at least your own understanding of the writing) and still be lost. You can do everything wrong and still be saved. This is because we always depend on the mercy of God rather than our ability to be perfect.