It starts with math. No, really. Bear with me.
We all should know from high school math that anything finite divided by infinity is zero, and infinity divided by anything finite is infinity.*
But what is infinity divided by infinity?
As it turns out, it can be anything. Not any old thing -- it's not random. Each case is specific. I can still remember Mrs. Mason saying, "Sometimes it's three. Sometimes it's a billion. You have to work it out."
This is relevant because the attributes of God are infinite. He is, among other things, infinitely just and infinitely merciful. And sometimes these infinite attributes lead us to an apparent contradiction.
Jesus faced such a contradiction head-on in a gospel reading from a few weeks back, in the form of the adulteress. A just judgment would have had her stoned to death according to the law. A merciful judgment would have allowed her to live and reform. His interlocutors were trying to catch him in a contradictory trap. So what did Jesus, infinitely just and infinitely merciful, do?
First he let them stew a little bit. He wrote on the ground.
"Them" includes the woman. Her death was in front of her. I imagine that her regret was intense and her understanding of her wrongdoing was clear.
Then he said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
It's hard to imagine the sensations that washed over the people who were there. There's an idea called the Irresistable Force Paradox, popularly expressed as, "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?" That's what they had just seen. Except, instead of being a paradox, it was a solution to a problem. An infinitely just and infinitely merciful solution.
The woman was subject to the law, and Jesus didn't demand any abrogation of the law. His suggestion was perfectly just -- infinitely just.
Yet the woman lived, and so his suggestion was also perfectly, infinitely merciful.
One might even say that mercy arose from justice: Each potential stone-thrower recognized how unjust it would to cast a stone, and therefore woman lived.
Or is it that justice arose from mercy? We don't know anything about her, but we can guess that she repented, becoming, in a way, a different person -- perhaps during those few moments when Jesus wrote on the ground -- who would never do such a thing again. Jesus told her, "Neither do I condemn you." (There's a Jewish tradition that, if I understand it correctly, says that God won't condemn someone who truly repents her wrongdoing, because if she truly repents, she's no longer the kind of person who would commit that act. Although this isn't a Christian teaching, it seems to have at least an echo of truth to it.) She no doubt suffered social stigma, loss of trust with her husband, and other issues, but that's also just. Her acts had caused real harm, and she had to deal with the repercussions.
Perhaps a less-than-perfectly-just result wouldn't have been merciful. Is it mercy to let someone continue doing something that puts her soul in jeopardy?
So infinite justice and infinite mercy worked out, in this concrete situation, to be the salvation of the woman. The solution wasn't saying, "This woman is forgiven." It wasn't saying, "This woman should be stoned to death." Jesus worked out a specific and necessary solution.
It almost makes me wonder if, in that enigmatic bit about Jesus writing on the ground, he was working out equations.
This brings us to Easter.
It's a strange thing that Jesus did, sacrificing himself on a cross. For us modern Westerners, it can be hard to understand. Why should an innocent man take the punishment for other guilty parties? And on the flip side, why should Original Sin cause innocent people to merit punishment for something another person did?
Humanity would be different if Adam and Eve had never committed their sins. It wouldn't have been just to go "poof" and fix the consequences of our First Parents' sin, and it might not have been merciful, either. It would have made us different: Our origins are historically and generatively tied up with sin. Forget whether we "should" all suffer the consequences of their sin. We do, in the world and in ourselves. God so loved the world that he sent his only son -- he didn't love some other hypothetical one, but this one, that we're actually in, including us with all the screwed-up consequences of that original sin.
Look, I don't pretend to understand fully why the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection were the solution to the problem of original sin. I have ideas, but they're messy, and I'm not really even the best person to write about them. Even worse, they all deal with the sorts of things humans are worst at, intellectually, like infinities and paradoxes and counterfactuals. I wouldn't trust my own thinking on the matter, and all of church history suggests that it's a mystery, so I shouldn't expect to understand it fully. That's why I called this post "silly" right at the very beginning.
But I'm willing to believe that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are that weird nexus where infinite justice meets infinite mercy for the entire world. We expect that kind of thing to be counterintuitive.
That's what we celebrate today. The person who is fully human and fully God, eternal and existing in time, the begotten creator, unchanging and interactive, died and yet is alive.
He is risen.
I don't really get it.
* People will note, correctly, that what follows should properly be discussed in reference to limits. The limit of C/y is zero as y goes to infinity, the limit of y/C is infinity as y goes to infinity, and the limit of x/y is some number or infinity as x and y go to infinity. And I haven't even talked about signs! It's all good. Someone who is more concerned about the specifics than I am can lay it all out if they like. (Return to post)