Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.
The Scribes and Pharisees were always trying to get our Lord hooked on the horns of a dilemma. The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent gives us the account of one of these dilemmas: the woman caught in the act of adultery.
Jesus was teaching in the Temple area when the Pharisees led a woman forward who had been caught in the act of adultery. “Teacher, they said to him, “this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, and according to the Law of Moses she should be stoned to death.” They thought they had Jesus hooked, not on one but on two dilemmas. The first had to do with a conflict of laws. The Romans had conquered Palestine, and had wisely permitted the Jews to rule themselves according to their own laws, but they withheld the right of capital punishment. The dilemma is obvious. If he supports the Mosaic Law of stoning to death, he is violating the Roman law. If he supports the Roman Law he is violating the Mosaic Law which the people held to be sacred. In either case he is caught.
More important to Jesus is the second dilemma. Jesus said that he had come not for the just but for the sinner. He had been preaching mercy and forgiveness. Now if he consents to the stoning he is contradicting what he has been preaching. If he does not consent to the stoning he is contradicting the Law of Moses. Once again he is trapped.
Jesus’ response is simple. He bends over and writes on the ground with his finger. What did he write? Was it, “What about the man who was caught in the same act of adultery?” What ever he wrote we really do not know. In any case Jesus stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, beginning with the elders, they began to walk away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus stood up and asked her, “Where are they? Has no one contemned you?” “No one sir.” “Nor do I condemn you. You may go. But from now on avoid this sin.”
So once again the Scribes and Pharisees end up on the horns of their own dilemma. And our Lord uses the dilemma to teach an important lesson. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Our Lord is addressing a very common human failing. We are social beings. We live together in society. It is natural to compare ourselves with others and to judge them. And most of the time the judgment is negative. Conscious of our own failings we feel better when we put others down.
But we are not the judge. God is the judge. It will be the Lord who will separate the sheep from the goats at the last judgment. As Jeremiah puts it, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy, who can understand it. I the Lord alone probe the mind and test the heart, to render to each according to the merits of his deeds.” (Jer. 17: 9-10)
Furthermore, we do not have all of the data to make a true judgment. We judge by appearances. We cannot know the heart and the conscience. Therefore, every human judgment by that very fact is superficial and false. Sometime we look down on others who if they had been given the opportunities and graces we have been given would have been far superior to us. And if we had been subjected to their situation we would be worse than they.
Finally, as we judge so shall we be judged. What we need is mercy, and forgiveness not judgment. “In the course of justice none of us would see salvation. We pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
We judge actions we do not judge persons. We respect and honor each person. They are made in the image of God. They have this intrinsic core goodness that nothing can destroy. And Jesus identifies Himself with this person. Whatever we do to them He takes as done to Himself. And we have sympathy and compassion for them for they share with us the dependence, infirmities and “transcendental neediness” of the human condition. And we realize that there but for the grace of God go I.
Our Lord expresses
this lesson very clearly in His Sermon on the Mount. “Stop judging,
that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and
the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do
you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not perceive
the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let
me remove that splinter from your eye’ while the wooden beam is
in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your own eye first;
then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s
eye. (Matt. 7: 1-5)
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