Counting the Cost of Condemnation

3.12blogToday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In this Gospel, the Lord intimates to the men of his day that the severe punishment they want to mete out to this woman may be unwise given that they themselves must prepare for their own judgment.

Before we look any further at the details, let’s consider a few background texts that may help us to better understand what Jesus is teaching. After each verse, I provide a brief commentary in red.

  1. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice here that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. Those who have shown proper mercy will be granted mercy on the Day of Judgment. By implication, the severe and merciless will be judged severely by the Lord.
  2. 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 we use a severe standard of judgment, that same strict 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.
  3. 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). James gives us three warnings in this text. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free we are therefore responsible for what we do. Third, because we are going to face this judgment, in which we will not be able to blame others for what we have freely done, we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. But if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our judgment day, for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  4. 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: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment we had better seek the grace to forgive others. 

All of these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will compare us on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful then we will find mercy. But if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful, the Lord will judge us far more strictly.

We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the Day of Judgment by the way we treat others. Because we are all going to need so much mercy and because we cannot endure strict standards of judgment, we should consider carefully the need to be merciful and forgiving to others. And now, on to today’s Gospel!

I. COLLABORATORS IN CONDEMNATION – The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring forward a woman caught in the very act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the very act, the man involved must also be known. Why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses indicates that the man should be stoned as well.)

The accusers want to “throw the book” at her. They want the strictest punishment meted out: stoning. They also hope to discredit Jesus by putting Him in what they think is a no-win situation.

In their accusatory stance, they have become collaborators with Satan. Scripture describes Satan in this way: the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God (Rev 12:10). And thus these Pharisees, in seeking to hand her over, join Satan.

When we have been hurt in some way, many of us may wish to both accuse and demand punishment of the person before God. But this is unnecessary and unwise.

It is unnecessary because Satan is already accusing them “day and night” before God. In addition, God sees and knows all things anyway!

It is unwise because by demanding harsh punishment for others we set ourselves up to judged by the same strict standard. Cries for grace and the conversion of sinners is always a better policy.

 II. COUNTING THE COST – As God, Jesus knows the sins of all the men gathered. He must be amazed; surely they cannot be serious in demanding such a harsh punishment for the woman knowing that the day of their own judgment awaits them!

Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading of their deeds. Some suggest that perhaps He is writing down their sins. Some liken it to the finger of God tracing the Commandments on stone. Still others recall the mysterious hand in the Book of Daniel, which traces the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES on the wall, announcing doom to the Babylonian king.

Whatever the case, it isn’t good. You don’t ever want Jesus to be writing stuff down about you!

But these Pharisees are slow to appreciate the significance of the gesture. So Jesus tries to reason with them, saying,Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then He bends down again and continues tracing/writing on the ground.

It is almost as though Jesus were saying,

Reason with me, men. If you demand strict justice, if you insist that I “throw the book” at her, you’d better first look and see what is written about you in “the book.” If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy, then you, too, will face the same standard.

Gentlemen, there are things in the book about you—serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure that you want to go on demanding that I “throw the book” at her?

Think about it men. Think very carefully.

One by one they go away. It begins with the oldest, who are presumably less rash than the younger men (and may well have committed more sins).

So the message for us is clear: we will face judgment. We need to be sober about this. We must count the cost of being unmerciful, unforgiving, and vengeful. The measure that we measure out to others will be the measure that God uses for us.

What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to risk storing up wrath and strict justice for the day of your own judgment?

On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be given to us if we show it to others. Remember your upcoming judgment. Be like the wise man, who knows he will need grace and mercy on that day because he will not be able to withstand a strict adjudication of his crimes.

III. CORRECTING WITH COMPASSION – The departure of the accusers leaves Jesus alone with the woman. Though He speaks gently, Jesus is clear: “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.”

This Gospel, therefore, does not make light of the woman’s sin. Jesus knows well what she has done and so does she. Jesus is clear that she must turn away from sin; she must not commit it anymore. What Jesus does set aside is the condemning “hang-‘em-high” mentality that seeks the harshest measures for every situation.

Yes, we must sometimes correct sinners and mete out punishment. This is particularly true if we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role.

But before rushing to extreme measures, we do well to show mercy and to attempt 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 only be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, mercilessness, and lovelessness.

OK, you get the point: count the cost. Be very careful to remember that the measure you measure out to others will be measured out to you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

4 Replies to “Counting the Cost of Condemnation”

  1. It’s more straightforward than this. Here was a lynch-mob bent on murdering a woman as an adulteress. It was incumbent on Jesus as King to see that she received a fair trial according to law. He had jurisdiction to hear and determine capital cases. He correctly applied the commandment of the Law which forbids accepting the testimony of a transgressor.

    Having ruled that all the witnesses were disqualified, Jesus made the correct decision that the woman must be acquitted for lack of evidence. Then He dealt with her conscience by forgiving her sins.

  2. Father,

    I love your columns and your good sense. I also love the way you enlighten us about liturgical traditions that we may not have understood or remembered correctly. Thank you for that. We used to attend the traditional mass sometimes (back before it was the “extraordinary form”) before we moved.

    In this column, I think you might be leaving out a couple of critical ingredients to truly understanding the passage fully.

    First of all, the way the scribes and pharisees bring out the woman caught in the act, and not the men, proves that they were not interested in following the Mosaic law. Their actions were in repudiation of God’s will in this matter. Their actions were self-accusations of their own evil wills. (No, not because they weren’t blood-thirsty enough to punish the man, it’s more nuanced.)

    Secondly, the law does not just provide that the adulterer be stoned, it provides that he or she be accused by two eye-witnesses, AND that these two witnesses were to be the first to cast stones at him or her. So, when Jesus said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” he was challenging them EXPLICITLY on a point of law. Under the law, “the wicked” or “the guilty” are unjust witnesses (Ex. 23:1), therefore they are disqualified as witnesses. They may be divided into five groups: criminals, swindlers, perjurers, illiterates, and informers. It is (to us, at least) unclear whether any of the scribes and pharisees bringing the woman to Jesus were in these 5 groups – or that they were so publicly, anyway. But whomever the elders were going by as claimed witnesses to the adultery, were they qualified? Or had the elders relied on unworthy testimony? Given the fact that they had already violated the law in condemning just the woman and not the man, we must wonder about this second problem, which Jesus’s comment seems to get at.

    Indeed, we might reasonably suppose that Jesus was writing on the ground those sins that, for each one (starting with the elders) disqualified him as a witness able to throw the first stone. If none are qualified witnesses to cast the first stone, then under the law nobody else can stone her either. Jesus was not setting aside the law that demands punishment for evil. He was following the law.

    Mercy is an important part of the message of the passage. But it is important to be clear on HOW it comes in. The law is still the law (Jesus does not overturn the law), and it remains a law meant for the common good of society itself. It remains the case that when judges and executioners put the guilty to death through the proper and due working of the law, this is for the common good. What Jesus does here is to insist on a PERSONAL commitment to mercy, between individuals. In the passages from Matthew, Luke, and James, each man needs to be aware of his own sinfulness and his own need for mercy, and to deal accordingly to those who sin against him. Indeed, any time a man offends me through some wrong, he MORE offends God than me, and he more needs God’s forgiveness than mine, and my forgiving him may well lead him to that much more important repentance. Thus we can “store up” riches in heaven. We should not, out of pride, insist on every man paying each and every debt of the wrongs they commit against us, for such pride will destroy us.

    But it is otherwise for a judge acting on behalf of the state. In trying a case, and stating the just punishment, (assuming he has no personal stake in the case) it is not PRIDE for him to correctly say when the due and just punishment is death. It is not willful disregard for his own personal need for mercy for a judge to levy the just punishment on a murderer, when in so judging he cannot foresee any other plausible outcome other than that the murderer will go on holding the evil in his will, hardening his heart, thus magnifying his opposition to God. It would be a false sort of “mercy” to withhold the just punishment required to restore balance to the social order, without any sound prospect of the real goal of such mercy – everlasting life.

    Even from the Old Testament we know that God prefers the conversion of a sinner than the death of the sinner. The punishments laid out for grave evils were both for the good of the whole society, and for teaching each man what to avoid in his own will. God did not intend, in laying out stoning for grave crimes, that people take delight in killing the guilty. He intended rather that they learn to hate the interior evil that brought forth such punishments: the lust of adultery, the hatred leading to murder, etc. The elders, not understanding the purposes of the law, but only its superficial aspects, were willing to accuse the woman before Jesus but not to accuse the man, because they were thinking not as God thinks, but as man thinks. In their own sinful wills, they did not see her sin as a horror to avoid, but as a tool with which to entrap Jesus. Thus their own behavior – in not condemning the equally guilty man – proves that they were not approaching to the matter of punishing the guilty from any good motive, not from God’s intentions, but from disordered loves of their own.

    Those whose POSITIVE DUTY it is to make judgments about the actions of others – parents and judges, especially – to reward good and punish evil, are not called to obey this precept of Jesus’s by refusing to punish the guilty. They are called to follow Jesus’s precept by willing good even to the guilty, even in punishing them, rather than delighting in the condemned being made to suffer.

  3. Thank you Msgr., especially for the bible references to mercy as a prologue. God bless your work in the Archdiocese and God’s vineyard!

  4. Who can boast of tripping The LORD? The wisest of this world is just a rag compared to HIS Wisdom. I just wonder how HE will handle the atheist with HIS one liners. Thanks Monsignor for the post.

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