Today’s Gospel relates the wonderful story of Jesus forgiving the sinful woman. In our present cultural milieu, however, it is likely that people may “find fault” with the story itself: Why was only the woman brought to Jesus? Does not the punishment seem disproportionate to the crime? Why does the law intrude into people’s personal lives? All legitimate concerns, to be sure. Sad to say: they miss the point.
Let us begin with the fact that the woman—and no one else—is on trial. How, then, do we reconcile the legal ramifications of the woman’s sin, which are dire, with the notion of a good and compassionate God? As many of the saints have observed, in God, justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Only limited, imperfect human beings understand them as fundamentally opposed.
On the one hand, one may argue that the woman is indisputably guilty of a crime. And so, what we call “distributive justice” (justice on the merits of one’s actions) demands punishment, surely. At the same time, it is also true that God’s law is “above” human law. That is, it is directed toward our salvation and, unlike human law, does not carry a threat—at least, not a worldly threat – with it.
Here is where we discover the link between God’s justice and mercy. Divine justice aims at forgiving what was sinful, restoring what was broken, and saving what was lost. Notice that the woman does not dispute her own guilt; neither does Jesus rationalize what she has done. Still, Our Lord’s very person—compassionate, loving, merciful—awakens within her the yearning for a life of goodness, truth, and beauty: a life that seems wildly beyond whatever she could have hoped for or imagined. “Neither do I condemn you; now go, and from now on avoid this sin…” A human being, created in the image and likeness of God, has a new lease on life. After the angry mob dissipates, having been indicted by Goodness Itself, the story resolves:
Then Jesus spoke with the one who remained at His side.
To whom justice and mercy were almost denied:
“Has no one condemned you then?”
“Not one,” the woman replied.
“Then avoid this sin, a new life begin; in peace you may go and abide.”
And then Jesus bent down and knelt in the sand
And started to trace the ground with his hand,
Searching the human heart to see
What was wounded in you and me.
Friends, as Lent draws to a close, let us spend some time with Christ, and “read” what he writes in the sand concerning what lies in our hearts.