The Gospel for today’s Mass is the well known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In this Gospel the Lord reasons with the men of his day (and with us) that the severe justice they want to render to this woman may be an unwise stance as they themselves prepare for their own judgment.
Before we look any further at the details of this Gospel consider with me a few background texts that may help us to grasp better what Jesus is teaching. After each verse I will give a brief commentary.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt 5:7) Notice here that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. It is those who have shown proper mercy that will be granted mercy on the Day of judgment. By implication, the severe and those who lack mercy will be judged severely by the Lord.
- Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38) Here the text clearly states that if you or I use a severe standard of judgment, that same severe standard will be used by the Lord when he judges us. On the other hand if we are forgiving, merciful and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous and kind judgment from God.
- Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13) Here too James warns us by reminding us first of all, that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Secondly, since we are free we are therefore responsible for what we do. Thirdly, since we are going to face this judgment in which we cannot pass off blame to others for what we have freely done we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Ah but if we have shown mercy we stand a chance for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
- For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15) This warning seems clear enough that if we want to find forgiveness on the day of judgment we had better seek the grace to forgive others.
All of these texts seem to teach a bold truth that we are actually able to influence the standard that the Lord will use on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful we will find mercy. But if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful the Lord will use a far stricter standard by which to judge us. We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the day of judgment by the way we treat others. Now on to the Gospel.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring a woman caught in the very act of adultery. It is clear she is guilty of this offense. (However a curiosity exists. She was caught in the very act, so the man involved is also surely known. Where is he and why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses also indicates that the man should be stoned). Now the accusers want to throw the book at her. They want the most strict punishment meted out. They want her stoned.
Jesus who as God knows all their sins must be amazed. Surely they cannot be serious in demanding this if they consider the day of their own judgment?! He bends down and traces his finger on the ground almost as though his finger was tracing back and forth as he read what was recorded of them in the book. So he tries to reason with them and says, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone!” Then he bends down again and continues tracing or writing on the ground. It is almost as though he were saying:
“Reason with me men, if you demand strict justice, if you insist that I throw the book at her, let’s first look and see what there is about you in the book. If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy then you too will face the same standard you demand for her. There are things in the book about you, serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure you want to go on demanding that I throw the book at her? Think about it men.”
One by one they go away starting with the oldest who are presumably less rash than the younger and may have more sins! Soon Jesus is alone with the woman. He does not condemn her but warns her not to commit this sin again.
So the message for us is clear. We will face judgment. Sober about that fact we need to count the cost of our being unmerciful, unforgiving and vengeful. The measure that we use for others with be the measure God uses for us. What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Be careful to count the cost.
It remains true that we must sometimes correct sinners and meet out punishment. Jesus is compassionate with this woman but he warns her not to sin again. Punishment is sometimes necessary and at times it falls to us to issue it. Perhaps we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role. But before we rush to the most extreme measures we do well to show mercy and use lesser measures first. St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Gal 6:1) Gentle and clear correction is the best course, more significant punishments should be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, lack of mercy and lack of love.
Count the cost. Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to store up wrath for the day of your judgment in this regard? On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be reckoned to us if we show it to others. Do the math, remember judgment.