Opening the Word: In need of mercy

Imagine being caught in a most serious and embarrassing sin, then taken into a crowded public area and placed before the man who will determine your fate. You stand between your accusers and your judge, like someone walking a tightrope with doom, perhaps death, waiting on either end. 

You are lost, alone, damned. And you know you are guilty of the sin of which you have been accused. The only unsettled matter is the exact form of your punishment. You only hope it isn’t death. 

We all have something in common with the woman caught in adultery: We are sinners in desperate need of mercy, without argument or alibi, completely at the mercy of a righteous judge. Lent, of course, is meant to remind us of this need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, not in order to make us feel enslaved, but to recognize anew the joy of salvation.  

A word that stands out in the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is “caught.” The woman had been caught in adultery — probably through devious means, based on the absence of the guilty man. The scribes and the Pharisees hoped Jesus would be caught in their legal snare. Their trap was simple and seemingly airtight. The Law was clear about the punishment for sins such as adultery: “If a man is discovered having relations with a woman who is married to another, both the man and the woman with whom he has had relations shall die” (Dt 22:22; see Lv 20:10).  

If Jesus allowed the woman to live, he would be accused of acting contrary to the Law. But, as St. Bede noted, if Jesus “determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching.” 

Jesus’ response was brilliant on both the legal and spiritual level. First, he bent down and began to write on the ground, the only instance of Jesus writing in the Gospels. What did he write? Perhaps the sins of some of the accusers? Something from the Law, such as, “Do not join the wicked in putting your hand, as an unjust witness, upon anyone” (Ex 23:1)? 

Whatever the words, they set up Jesus’ stunning riposte: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). This turned the rhetorical thrust of the scribes and Pharisees back into themselves. In so doing, Jesus presented the accusers with difficult options: If any of them did throw a stone, he would have outrageously declared his moral perfection. And if anyone threw stones, they likely risked being severely punished by the Romans (see Jn 18:31). If none of them threw a stone, they would admit implicitly their sinfulness. They were caught. 

It wasn’t just that the scribes and Pharisees were sinners; it was the fact that Jesus had exposed their unjust and sinful use of the woman as a pawn. “He recognizes that,” observed biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown, “although they are zealous for the word of the Law, they are not interested in the purpose of the Law.” Beaten at their own game, the accusers melted away. “The two were left alone,” wrote St. Augustine in a memorable description, “the wretched woman and Mercy.” 

Now you are standing face to face with the righteous teacher and merciful judge. While he rejects your sin, he accepts you. He invites you to a radical life of discipleship, liberated from sin and free from being precariously balanced between accusation and damnation. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.