One of my favorite scenes in the Harry Potter franchise is from the first movie. Most of us have that sibling or cousin who lives to tattle. The one who lives to see us fail, or to break the rules, and wants to get us in trouble. “Dad, guess what Billy did?”
Well, in the first movie (Yes, I said movie. I’ve not read the books. Mea culpa.) we have Ron, Hermione and Harry heading out at night to visit Hagrid in his hut. Hagrid just got a new egg that he is trying to hatch (It’s a dragon by the way), but Harry is on a mission to find out as much as he can about the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was this stone that could grant eternal life, in a way. The kids are interrogating Hagrid for every detail. Each time one of the children gets a partial confession out of Hagrid, he has to say, “I shouldn’t have told you that."
As the scene progresses, and Hagrid tells them about the Stone and what is being done to protect it, you see two eyes and a nose poking over the window ledge looking into the hut. It’s Draco Malfoy, Harry’s arch-nemesis. He had followed the group to Hagrid’s, and now the group is in trouble. They weren’t supposed to be outside of the castle at night. There were strange happenings about, so Harry and his crew get dragged before their house mistress, Mrs. McGonagall. As they get reprimanded for the infraction, Draco is standing by looking proud. He knows he gets to stick it to Harry. Thinking, like any of us, any sinner in the world, “I got you now. I caught you in sin. Vengeance is mine.” But then there comes the punishment.
“And to ensure it doesn't happen again, all four of you will receive detention.”
Draco is taken aback. “Excuse me professor, did you say four?”
“Yes, Mr. Malfoy. Noble as your intentions were, you also were found out of bed.”
Draco being so consumed with finding fault in another sinner that he “sinned” in order to catch his enemy in a transgression.
Most of us laugh at such a scene. We like it because Draco gets his just reward for his attempts to be a “hero” in his own right. But the whole scene is played out before us as the very nature of the human condition. Our sin is never enough for us. The blame must go around. The haunting nature of our depravity being one in which we fell a whole lot better when others suffer the consequences right before our eyes. Damn the consequences that may fall on us.
Most of us know the story of Jonah. We at least know about the big fish, or whale. We know that Jonah was swallowed. We know that he was sent to Nineveh to preach, but most of us lose the rest of the story. That in chapter one, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach against them because of their evil. What is lost for us is that we can never understand the relationship between Israel and Nineveh. They were mortal enemies. It was as though God said to Jonah, “Go to the place where they will kill you, and tell them bad news.” Plus, we live in such a culture that we would jump at the chance to tell off another sinner for their sins. Nothing would stop us, yet Jonah gets in a boat to run to the ends of the earth to escape his call and his God. That God’s relentless work to send him follows Jonah in the boat through a storm.
Eventually, Jonah tells the sailors to toss him into the sea to calm the storm. I first thought is that Jonah is being sacrificial at this point, but no. Instead, he thinks, “If I die, no more worries about Nineveh, preaching, the call, or God.” But God again intervenes and sends the fish.
By chapter three, God has turned Jonah into fish uke in order to get him to ascent to the call. He goes and preaches what God tells him to preach. It takes one sermon on his first day in the city, only seven words – “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” – and all of Jonah’s enemies (including the cows) repent in sackcloth and ashes. This chapter ends with God relenting of any disaster.
However, God is not done with Jonah. Jonah is angry at God because he can’t stand the results that he knew would come. He knew God, his God, as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” He would much rather see his enemies die in a fireball from the sky than see them receive the mercy God lives to dish-out. So, Jonah sulks. He sits on a hilltop expecting God to not be his God, and to see these “vile sinners” be singed by Divine wrath. Jonah being as “us-like” as we could ever be
In Luke 6, Jesus has been talking about blessings and curses. He turns these blessings around to a practical picture of the struggles of sinners in the world. He takes our love and destroys it by telling us that we must love our enemies. He hands us that rule we all love – “Don’t judge, lest ye be judged!” – which is our favorite form of absolution. We shout it from the rooftops before we have the chance to feel sorrow for our sin. What follows is the more striking of all the statements Christ makes about our own fault and frailty:
“Why do you see the tiny piece of straw in your brother’s eye, but don’t notice the 8x8 hunk of lumber protruding from your own eye? How can you say to your brother – ‘Dude, let me remove the piece of straw from your eye’ – when you cannot see that piece of lumber in your own eye?” – Luke 6:41-42 (Author’s translation)
With such a thing as a tree-trunk stuck in our eye, our vision becomes obstructed, making us see only what we wish to see, or think we can see, in our brother or sister, let alone our enemies. So, when we see in our brother or sister the works of grace happening, mercy coming home to roost in Christ, and the forgiveness of sin does its work to claim another victim, the blatant nature of the crime laid out before us brings us indifference, discomfort, or even rage. How could they deserve such a gift?!
That is the danger of sin. Our sin can, and usually does, become blinding to us, causing us to know it well enough that we can see it in others, while not noticing it in ourselves. Indeed, this blindness leads us to amplifying the sins of others to try and forget our own feebleness of heart and soul. Working to condemn the souls of our brethren, while championing our own cause because the lumber of our eyes makes us think we have a beach-body, when in fact we carry a dad-bod.
So, any semblance of sin in another, and especially someone being able to get away with that sin with no repercussions, becomes an absolute scandal to us. Either we do not see ourselves in the darkness of our sin (Who can see that well in the dark?), we reflect our sin upon the other, or we just like the idea of someone else getting in trouble because maybe people won’t notice how bad we are.
Recently, Jussie Smollett learned this the hard way. If you have not heard the story (Which rock have you been living under?), Jussie is an actor on a show called Empire. Bearing the burdens of being a gay man of color in today’s society, he found himself in the midst of a controversy surrounding an alleged hate crime. When news broke that the assumed truth was far from what was reported previously to the police, we watched as the whole nation got enraptured by seeing the apparent sins of another exposed before a world of “logged” eyes.
Jussie, having allegedly paid two Nigerian brothers to fake a hate crime for the purposes of generating publicity and gaining financial rewards for himself, was found to be convicted by the majority of society. Everyone knew he was guilty. “O, what a sinner.” A segment of the population lampooned him and used his story as a reason for us to negate every alleged hate crime ever. Others used it to make the case that he was bringing to light a massive problem in our country. Regardless, the attempts to use Jussie for the abdication or reprobation of other sinners was front and center for over a week. Either he committed no crime or sin, sinned a grave sin and deserved absolute punishment, or he sinned in order to point out the worse sins of others to pour contempt upon everyone else.
Then Tuesday, March 26th, came upon us. “Today, all criminal charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and his record has been wiped clean of the filing of this tragic complaint against him.” Those were the words of Jussie Smollett’s attorneys. Suddenly, Jussie went from everyone knowing he was guilty, to now having everything he possibly did wiped clean and sealed. Gone. No more. What we were left with was mostly astonishment, but also anger, humor (Thank you, Chris Rock.), confusion, or maybe even hope. For what happened to Jussie should be hopeful, not that anyone should be able to get away with crime, but that somewhere, somehow, there is this audacious thing called mercy.
Mercy. A hard word. Meaning not having been granted that which you do deserve. Mercy, a word we find powerless for us. Worthless. Mercy being absolutely alien to us. We hate mercy. We can’t stand it. It isn’t fun. Fun is watching a city burn. Watching a life destroyed. Having all the sins of the world shown for what they are, as long as ours are not included. We would much rather be in a fight with our spouse and say, “Remember when you did this?”, than actually say “I’m sorry” for something we did not do.
The perversity of mercy is that worthiness doesn’t come into play. It can’t be bought, but it can be granted. Whether Jussie, or his compatriots, found a way to gain mercy through less-than-merciful means, what we see in his case is that which we see in Christ. For God, in Jesus, does exactly what has happened to Jussie, only to the extent that every sin, of everyone, of all time, has been wiped away. Cases dropped. Records expunged. What we love about such mercy is knowing that when Christ comes to us in our sin and says, “I forgive you,” he means it. What we hate about that kind of gift (mercy) is that all the power we have over another sinner is lost. All the power we can wield over those who sin against us has been drained of its force because those we condemn are now no longer under condemnation because of Jesus. So, we look at the Jussie’s of our lives, or the Harry’s and Hermione’s, and we think – I got you. Then Jesus stops by, and says, “I got them first.”
The Jussie case is the case for Christ. The anger or confusion some have over this outcome is the place we can go for why the message of the cross is such foolishness. Not only did the death of the God-man bring about the expunging of every case in the Sin-court, but it also made it so that every sinner has the freedom to walk through life knowing that whether it is a speck of dirt, or a Norway pine jutting from their eyeball, it makes no difference to Jesus. He likes sinners.
I’m glad Jussie was forgiven. Because I can use him to paint the picture for Jesus. Use his story articulate why Jesus matters to you and to me. Why Good Friday is still good. Why Jesus must be know to us as the Bearer of Mercy. Know to us as the one who takes the guilty and pronounces innocence, who takes the sinner and proclaims salvation, who takes the unmerciful and grants mercy.