Near the middle of the Gospel of John (8:1-11), we encounter the story of a woman caught in adultery who is brought before Jesus for judgment. Jesus’ actions that day have much to teach us about the nature of the relationship between mercy and justice.
After spending the night on the Mount of Olives, Jesus arrives in the Temple area and begins teaching the people who have flocked to him. The scribes and the Pharisees bring before him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. Citing Mosaic Law, which calls for the stoning of the woman, they ask Jesus his opinion on the matter.
At first, Jesus says nothing, preferring instead to write on the ground with his finger. But as the scribes and Pharisees press for a response, Jesus famously says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” before resuming his writing on the ground.One by one, the woman’s accusers leave until only the woman and Jesus remain. Jesus asks her where everyone has gone. When she replies that no one is left to condemn her, Jesus indicates he also does not condemn her, then says, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
What’s up, doc?
The great doctor of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo helps to shed light on what is taking place in this Gospel story. He explains the Book of Psalms identifies truthfulness, meekness and righteousness as characteristics of the long-awaited Messiah. The scribes and Pharisees in our story knew this, and had seen that Jesus exhibited all three of these: truth as a teacher; gentleness and meekness as a protector and in the face of his enemies; and righteousness as a person in all his actions. Now, while they respected his truth and meekness, St. Augustine asserts they were tormented with envy by his righteousness and sought a way to upend him.
Consequently, they were trying to trap Jesus into a choice between gentleness and righteousness; between mercy and justice. They reasoned the law commanded that adulterers had to be stoned, and because it was the Law of Moses, it could not command anything unjust. So if Jesus were to have mercy on the woman by arguing against her stoning, then he would be shown to be unjust and, therefore, unrighteous. This would enable them to charge him with being against the Law of Moses.
On the other hand, if Jesus were to agree with the law and her stoning, then Jesus would be shown to be unmerciful. This would undoubtedly cause him to lose influence with the people, as he was loved precisely because of his gentleness.
Of course, Jesus’ response both keeps the demands of justice and of mercy. He did not speak against the law by saying she should not be stoned, nor did he say she should be stoned. Instead, he put it back on the woman’s accusers, saying, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With this, he forced the woman’s accusers to look inward at their own guilt in violating the very same law. St. Augustine puts it like this, “Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive the penalty of the law.”
He argues that the voice of justice says let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners. This ultimately causes all to depart, leaving only the woman and Jesus, the one without sin, the one who alone could cast the first stone. However, the woman receives mercy instead, with the admonition to sin no more.
St. Augustine adds that the Lord certainly did condemn the sin, but not the person. Because the Lord is merciful and long-suffering, he allows us space for correction – gives us the opportunity to repent of our sins and offers us pardon. However, because the Lord is also just and true, our failure to repent will lead to our just punishment.
A double danger
Due to this, we face a double danger, according to St. Augustine. We are in danger of being deceived by oping we can do whatever we please, letting loose the reins to our desires, in the belief that God, in his goodness and mercy, will simply overlook this. In other words, we have no need for repentance or worry, for God will save us regardless.
We are in danger from despair when we believe our sins are so great that they are beyond pardon, even though we repent of them. In other words, we are doomed to damnation regardless.
For those being deceived by hoping, fear of God’s justice is the antidote. To these, Jesus directs the words, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” For those in despair, trust in God’s mercy is the antidote. To these, Jesus says, ““Neither do I condemn you.”
It bears repeating the mercy of Christ reveals that the love of the Father is more primary and fundamental than the Father’s justice. Mercy, in the words of St. John Paul II, “signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity” of the world. Yet, justice is not forgotten. On the contrary, in overcoming sin, love transformed into mercy restores right relationships, or justice, by restoring the dignity and value of the offending party. Furthermore, mercy always calls the sinner to conversion.
Theology 101 Quiz
Test your knowledge of what the Bible has to say about mercy …
“Have mercy on me, God, in your ________; in your abundant ________ blot out my offense. Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.”
a. goodness; compassion
b. love; justice
c. anger; wrath
d. righteousness; patience
Answer: a – goodness; compassion (Psalm 51:3-4)
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”
In a world that increasingly tells us that nothing matters, these words of Thomas Merton remind us that everything matters – infinitely. As you continue your journey through the Year of Mercy, consider planting Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in your soul.
The Seven Storey Mountain is Merton’s (1915-1968) autobiography, published in 1948. Merton was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky. In the book, Merton reflects on his life, on his quest for faith in God and on his conversion to Roman Catholicism. More than 3.5 million copies of the book have been sold since its original publication, and it is considered by many to be a modern spiritual classic.