This Sunday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In it, 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 examine 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.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice 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.
- 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). 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.
- 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. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free, we are 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. Conversely, if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our own judgment day, 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: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment, we had better seek the grace to forgive others.
All these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will measure 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 Pharisees and the teachers of the law bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the 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). 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; 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. It’s always a better policy to cry for grace and the conversion of sinners.
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!
Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading about 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 things down about you!
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 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 demand that I “throw the book” at her?
Think about it, men. Think very carefully.
One by one they go away. It begins with the older men, who are presumably less rash than the younger ones (and may well have committed more sins).
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 what she has done and so does she. He 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.
Before rushing to extreme measures, however, 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.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Counting the Cost of Condemnation