To rehabilitate or to punish—that is the question. Whether a judge is sending someone to prison or a parent is sending a child to time out, what is the motive behind it? Do we want someone to be changed and become a better person, or do we just want a criminal to suffer. Honestly, in my house, it’s sometimes a mixed affair. When I send my child to time out for the gazillionth time for the exact same offense, I wonder whether I’m passing judgment because I really expect a change or simply because I’m supposed to.
The same question holds true when we think about repentance and judgment. Must our sins be paid for, or are we being transformed into the people God is calling us to be? Is Jesus’ death on the cross redemptive because of its punitive effect or because it shocks us into righteousness? What does it mean to be sorry for one’s sins? Sorry, to me, implies suffering—even if only in a moment of mental anguish. Must I feel remorse to be forgiven, or can I simply sin, return to God, and rejoice that I am forgiven?
In today’s reading from John 7:53-8:11, Jesus spends a lot of time bent over, writing in the dirt. Some religious authorities brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked whether she should be stoned to death—as Moses and the law commanded. Looking up from his dirt-writing, Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they went away, one at a time, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus and the woman were left.
That Jesus hits the Pharisees with that zinger is interesting, but I’m even more drawn to his exchange with the woman. Jesus asks, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” When she verifies that none remains, Jesus continues, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus, it seems, prefers the rehabilitation-approach.
I wonder what that woman felt when Jesus turned her loose. Was she grateful? Surprised? Ecstatic? When the story unfolds, I forget just how sinful this woman was. She had been caught in the act of adultery. Her death was all but certain. Her psychological trauma had already been experienced as she was dragged to the site of her potential execution. When Jesus releases her from her obligation, I wonder whether she was humbled or even shamed. The fact that Jesus sends her away with the bidding, “Go and sin no more,” suggests that this was a transformative moment for her. And it can be for us as well.
We do not simply hear Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.” We must also hear him say, “Go and sin no more.” For forgiveness to be real, we must face the reality of our sinfulness. That moment of face-to-face honesty doesn’t need to feel like a punishment, but it needs to make us squirm—not so our agony can be redemptive but so we can be transformed. Embracing our redemption means leaving behind our sinfulness, and that doesn’t happen easily. We may not be required to pay the price for our transgressions, but we must be rehabilitated by the one who did.