Neither Do I Condemn You……
Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Nicholas Crowe shows how Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery is one of justice perfected through love.
Our Gospel reading is meant to lead us into a reflection on what it really means to be merciful. The Scribes and the Pharisees ask Jesus:
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
John’s Gospel makes it clear that this question is a trap. The Scribes and the Pharisees are trying to force Jesus to choose between obedience to God’s law and the life of a vulnerable woman. Whichever way he chooses, they plan to condemn him afterwards. They have not understood that, as Jesus himself teaches, love of God and love of neighbor sums up and fulfills the Law and the prophets, and that whilst mercy does indeed go further than justice demands, it does not contradict or exclude justice being done. The exploitation of the adulterous woman’s predicament for political ends by the Scribes and the Pharisees is therefore an abuse of God’s Law and Jesus will not co-operate in their game. We read that:
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.
This moment when Jesus begins to write in the sands is the only occasion in the Gospels where we are told that Jesus himself wrote anything. What was he writing? There is an ancient tradition that suggests that Jesus bent down and listed in the sand the sins of the adulterous woman’s accusers. The scribes and Pharisees came to accuse the woman and entrap Jesus, and instead found themselves accused. Unsurprisingly perhaps, when confronted with their own sin and their own need for forgiveness, the scribes and the Pharisees became inclined to be merciful towards their fellow sinner and went away without stoning the woman.
Strange as it may seem, then, the Pharisees in one sense at least are an example to us in this Gospel passage. St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that there are broadly speaking two ways in which we are moved to be merciful towards another person. The first is when we see what he calls ‘a real union’ between the person in distress and our own situation. If we can imagine ourselves being in the other person’s shoes, if we fear that we might one day experience the same kind of suffering, then we are more inclined to be merciful and to try to do what we can to remedy their misery. If, like the Pharisees at the beginning of our Gospel reading, we too are inclined to be somewhat judgmental in our dealings with others then we probably need to remind ourselves of our own sin and our own need for forgiveness lest, like the Pharisees at the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus himself has to show us that we are not quite as good as we think we are.
The second way that we can be moved to be merciful to others is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls a ‘union in love’. This is the kind of union that is forged when we love another person so much that they have become almost a part our life, an extension of our own self to such an extent that their distress becomes our distress, their pain becomes our pain. This second kind of mercy is exemplified by Jesus in our Gospel reading. Jesus has no sin, so he cannot fear being punished for his wrongdoing, he does not have a ‘real union’ with the woman in that sense. But nevertheless, because he loves the adulterous woman he wants what is best for her, and he suffers because she is in distress. Because Jesus loves this woman he wants to remedy her misery and so like the Pharisees but for different reasons, Jesus is also merciful. But notice, Jesus’ mercy goes further than the Pharisees who simply walk away. Our Gospel reading concludes:
He was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Because Jesus loves the adulterous woman he wants what is best for her, and what is best for this woman is that she turns away from evil and does good. Jesus’ mercy, because it is founded on love, does not simply let this woman off but demands that she change. In this way the mercy of Jesus is ordered to the same end as His justice: both are directed towards love of God and love of neighbor, but mercy goes further in its attempts to make that love manifest. Like the adulterous woman, all of us are recipients of God’s mercy offered to us in Jesus Christ. In gratitude for this great gift, let us be converted. Let us use this season of Lent to open our hearts and minds to God that his grace might transform us, that we might become Christlike in our love and mercy.
Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21 | Philippians 3:8-14 | John 8:1-11
The image above is from a painting in the Portuguese Church in Rome.