Christ’s Mercy and Justice

Christ PantocratorScribes and pharisees are obsessed with Christ. They have the single-mindedness of saints and the hypocrisy of sinners. They feature prominently in the story of the woman caught in adultery, saying and doing more than she does. What do they say, then, to Christ or to this woman? What do they do? And how does Jesus reply to this presumption?

They do not, like the wicked judges of Susanna, accuse Christ directly of a thing he did not do. They will soon, but they do not do this yet. They want to catch him in a genuine sin, in genuine heresy. As elsewhere, they fail. In response to their trap, Jesus begins to write on the ground — and they continue to ask. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With a characteristic oddness, Jesus says nothing else at first. He goes back to writing on the ground.

Not only do they not have a true condemnation against Christ, just as the wicked judges of Susanna did not, but the scribes and Pharisees also do not have a basis to condemn anyone. They are themselves condemned by sin. Reminded of their sin, they leave, in the best of them consciences awoken, in the worst, a self-absorbed fury and shame.

Jesus does not condemn her. Jesus forgives her. Sin no more. Jesus does not say that her sin was not sin. Jesus does not say that those who sin will not be condemned. Jesus, who could have cast the first stone, does not.

Did the woman know she was taken to the one man who could have thrown the first stone? We don’t know, and there are no signs in scripture that this is the case, though pious extrapolation does often bring up that point. We don’t need the speculation, however — it is enough to know that we know God might end creation at any point, bringing us to judgment immediately, and yet he doesn’t.

More on topic, did the Pharisees know they were trying to accuse the one man who could not be righteously accused of something? We don’t know, and there is not even pious guesswork which suggests this in anyone — except, maybe, in the case of Judas — but as with above, we don’t need the speculation. It is enough to know that instead of rebuking them, he could have given them the punishment of Korah in the Old Testament, or Ananias in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet they are also given a reprieve.

Some atheists make the point wondering why Jesus doesn’t show himself if they want him to believe — once he shows himself, it’s too late. That’s not just because showing himself robs them of the potential virtue of faith, of believing what was not seen, but also because when he comes it will be to judge. They will not get the rebuke of the Pharisees or the reprieve of the woman caught in adultery. When Christ comes again, it will be to judge once and forever all who have ever existed.

So for now, we should take comfort that in our lives, we have similarities to the scribes and Pharisees as well as the woman caught in adultery. Jesus speaks to them in rebuke, and to her in forgiveness, and many believers feel both stings at different point in their lives. This is better than the summary judgment on either.

Here is the beautiful part of it: All this time, there has been another character. There is a wide array of people listening to Jesus’ instruction, observing his example. As they see and believe the mercy of Christ, so should we exhibit the mercy of Christ. We should correct those who need correction, not try to trap those who we do not know the guilt of. As all the persons in the story, we should always acknowledge the reality of sin, but also the reality of our temporary reprieve from eternal punishment. Jesus, who could know her sin with certainty, did not. How much less should we, who do not know with certainty, condemn sinners, especially when a crowd looks upon us as they did with Jesus?

It is for those witnesses as well as for ourselves that even when we are cleansed of our sin, we do not condemn on this Earth. It is for everyone’s sake that we acknowledge the reality of sin in our lives and others. It is for the sake of exemplifying Christ that we also note the reprieve.

Benjamin Baxter volunteers with and writes for St. Paul Street Evangelization, an international apostolate dedicated to equipping Catholics to evangelize in public. For more information on this vital work, or to start your own group, go to StreetEvangelization.com. Please consider donating to SPSE.

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