Both liberal and conservative groups claim to represent the ideals of Jesus Christ. But the two positions often adopt very different ideas about moral and ethical issues. How can this be? Is one side or the other simply mistaken? Is one side or the other being dishonest?
The crowds were somewhat fickle about Jesus, sometimes following him in large numbers, other times abandoning him because his teaching did not tickle their fancy. The rulers, however, quickly targeted Jesus as their enemy. They had much to lose and so they could not afford to be lukewarm about this powerful preacher and miracle-worker. They believed that he would undermine their authority and so they were looking for a way to destroy Jesus.
On one occasion these hostile rulers confronted Jesus with a quandary that they felt sure would at least embarrass the carpenter-turned-rabbi. They presented him with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. In front of witnesses, they asked Jesus what he thought should be done with her. Should she be stoned to death according to the Law of Moses? Or should she be shown mercy and set free?
The religious leaders who concocted this heartless trap for Jesus thought that they had backed him into an ethical corner. If he agreed with stoning the woman, then he would come across as harsh and unforgiving to the everyday people who were helping to fuel his ever-threatening popularity. More importantly, he would be endorsing an action that was forbidden by the occupying Romans. Rome denied the Jewish people the authority to carry out capital punishment. Jesus could then be painted as a subversive in the eyes of the Romans; and the Empire had zero tolerance for any movement that challenged their absolute authority.
On the other hand, if Jesus did anything but support the woman’s execution, he would be challenging the authority of God’s holy Law given through his revered servant Moses. If the rulers could prove that Jesus broke the Jewish Law then his preaching ministry would be severely damaged in the court of public opinion. So what could Jesus do? Was it possible for him to uphold God’s Law and yet show mercy to the woman?
Jesus responded with some of his best known and often repeated words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Shocked into silence and shame, the hostile group dispersed. Without witnesses the woman could not be condemned, according to the Law. Jesus followed the letter of the Law and he spared the life of the woman.
Jesus then uttered words that should also be well known and often used. He told the woman, “Go, and from now on sin no longer.” With these words Jesus made it clear that the Law prohibiting adultery is good. He did not justify her lifestyle. He did not agree with her sexual immorality. He encouraged her to make better choices.
Despite some liberal assertions, God’s grace does not proclaim a sinful activity to be upright. God’s grace declares a sinful person to be forgiven, which requires a standard for upright behavior. To the angst of some conservatives, God’s grace to sinners is immeasurable. There is no three-strikes-and-you’re-out protocol in God’s Kingdom. All who admit their mistakes and turn back to God find in him an apparently inexhaustible fountain of mercy.
No matter how utterly frustrating to liberal ideals, God’s standard for upright behavior never changes to accommodate popular culture. No matter how endlessly aggravating to conservatives, God’s tolerance for repentant sinners never wavers.
So God’s standard for right human behavior is unchanging, but at the same time, his love for rebellious yet repentant people is unwavering. These two characteristics of God seem irreconcilable to rigid right-left thinking. Yet God’s holiness and God’s love met head-on at an old rugged cross just outside of Jerusalem. The results are cosmic and eternal.
Unfairly condemned, the sinless Son of God voluntarily sacrificed his life. In doing so, Jesus sealed both the honor of God’s righteousness and the salvation of his people. Jesus is the guarantee that God’s standard for upright behavior is not broken, and yet God’s love for repentant sinners is not denied.
So, is Jesus a liberal or a conservative? Yes, he is. Jesus is the most liberal conservative to ever walk the face of the earth. In Christ the simplistic human notions of liberal and conservative converge and become something far greater: God’s amazing grace. How sweet the sound.
– Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, Camden, AR, September 2011
Printed September 16, 2011; Camden News; Camden, AR.
This article also won Award of Outstanding Merit at the Amy Foundation.