When justice means mercy: Should the accusers join the accused, no longer can they manipulate God’s will to subjugate and control

LaCroix, François Picart, Priest of the Oratory of France, April 6, 2019

The story of the woman caught in adultery is exemplary of the way the scribes and the Pharisees attempted to try to catch Jesus out with regard to his relationship with the Law of Moses.  Either he respects it, and renounces his merciful approach towards sinners, or he remains loyal to his principle of mercy, in which case he refutes the Law of Moses on adultery.

Jesus’ response is twofold. He begins by writing on the ground, perhaps in reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from you shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”

Then, he catches the Pharisees out by raising another precept of the law: in cases of stoning, it is the witness of a crime against the Torah who has the right to cast the first stone (Deuteronomy 13: 10-11).

Whatever Jesus wrote on the ground, the passage from Jeremiah demonstrates the nuances of different relationships with Scripture, including its legal dimension. Where the Scribes and the Pharisees use Scripture to try to snare Jesus and condemn the woman, Jesus refers to the Scripture as a source of living water, as a pathway to freedom.

The Pharisees relate to Scripture in ways that condemns humans, the woman and Jesus in this example, rather than in a way that serves their relationship with God. Jesus is indicted for his attitude of mercy and the woman is brought to face violent, mortal punishment based on the Law of Moses.

Confronted with the perversity of such an enslaving relationship with Scripture and the Law of Moses being used to manipulate and control, Jesus deftly avoids the trap set for him.

By rethinking the prescription from Chapter 13 of Deuteronomy, he obliges the Scribes and the Pharisees to reflect on their own sins: only those who are free from sin may cast a stone. In this way, Jesus liberates the woman. 

No one is in the position to judge another

Jesus rethinks the meaning of the Law, as it is indicated in Exodus 20: 2-4, in the way that the Scripture can act as legislator: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

How could a liberator tolerate a use of the Law that subjugates people? Jesus is compelled to expose this warped usage of the Scripture. May those who demand a strict application of the Law first apply it to themselves!

The scene that follows shows the fairness of his logic.

That all of the accusers leave demonstrates their defeat. Each of them is obliged to admit the fact they are all, like the woman, sinners themselves. They have each transgressed the Law in the eyes of God and are therefore in no position to exact his Law as they see fit.

No one is in the position to judge another. The accusers join the accused and therefore can no longer manipulate God’s will to subjugate and control.

Conversely, through the mercy of his words and deeds, Jesus reveals the mystery of Divine mercy that he performs and which lives through him. His actions restore to dignity those who have been victims of manipulations of the Law. He opens for them a pathway to liberty and towards peace.

By embodying a practice of mercy that returns people to their rightful place, he shows his deep understanding of Divine mercy that does not stand in conflict with justice. He shows that there can be “no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness.”

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