25 March 2007

MERCY OVERCOMING JUSTICE

5th Sunday of Lent
Jn 8:1-11

A woman is brought to Jesus. She is being charged with adultery. Who caught her? The scribes and the Pharisees. And how was she caught? Let those who caught her answer the question: “Master,” they said, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery….”

The scribes and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman whom they caught in the very act of committing adultery. In the very act! What does “in the very act” imply? When we say we catch a man in the very act of stealing, for example, we mean that we see him actually in the process of stealing something. Perhaps, we catch him with either of his hands still holding what he has just stolen. “In the very act” in Filipino is “huli sa akto” that is why “huling-huli talaga”. Therefore, the accused can easily be judged guilty as charged. The woman in the Gospel today perhaps is truly guilty as charged. If so, Judaic justice system demands her death.

The woman may be guilty as charged, but how about those who are charging her – are they not also guilty? They caught her in the very act of committing adultery. How come?

If they indeed caught the woman in the very act of committing adultery, there can be three possible scenarios.

First, someone among her accusers must be peeping through the key hole of the room where she was in while committing adultery. To catch her in the very act of committing adultery, one must see what is really happening at the other side of the door where the woman was with her client, if not lover. That someone is guilty of voyeurism.

Second, her accusers must have had their eyes on her always and so they caught her right in the very act of committing adultery. And why did they have their eyes on her always? They had their eyes on her always because they either really wanted to kill her for some reason or they also wanted her for themselves. On both counts, nonetheless, they, too, are guilty of malice.

Third, could it be that one of her accusers, if not all, was actually her clients? It is intriguing that while the scribes and the Pharisees brought to Jesus the woman they caught in the very act of committing adultery, they seemed to have allowed her client or lover to go scot-free. Where is he? Or where are they? Could they actually be her accusers? If such is the case, then they, too, are guilty of adultery.
So, who really caught who? The scribes and the Pharisees did not really catch the woman they charged with adultery. Jesus caught them all.

On the one hand, while Jesus did not condemn the woman, He did not, however, condone her adulterous act. By forgiving her, Jesus instead confirmed the woman’s guilt but not by the claws of justice but by the touch of mercy. By sending her away, Jesus gave her a chance to satisfy the essential demand of justice, which is reformation of life. Thus, He admonished her, “Sin no more.”

On the other hand, while Jesus did not accuse the woman’s complainants of their own guilt, He did not, however, agree with their self-righteousness. By telling them to cast a stone on her, Jesus recognized what Judaic justice system dictated. By qualifying His instruction with “let he who has no sin cast the first stone”, Jesus threw the first stone not on the woman only but on all of them. By going back to what He was writing on the ground, was Jesus actually writing their sins on the sand?

The woman in the Gospel today is twice a victim. She is a victim of her accuser’s hypocrisy and hatred. But their hatred was not directed really toward her. Her accusers did not care much about satisfying justice as much as they care about trapping Jesus. The scribes and the Pharisees hated Jesus so much that they would do anything and use anyone to have a valid accusation against Jesus. Today, they used a woman who was caught in the very act of committing adultery. They do not see her as a woman at all but a bait.

But Jesus sees them all as God’s children – sinners and yet loved. He hates sin but loves the sinner. For while He indeed is just, Jesus’ greatest attribute, as St. Faustina Kowalska, the Apostle of the Divine Mercy, said, is mercy. Thanks be to God! For, imagine, if He were only just but not merciful, where would we all be by now? This is the message and joy of the Lord’s death on the cross. Pope Benedict XVI, while he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, said it so fittingly, “On the cross, God’s mercy overcame His justice.”

I have shared this story time and again in my homilies and reflections, please allow me to conclude my thoughts today with the same appropriate story.

To discourage cowardice among his military forces, Napoleon the Great used to impose the death penalty to soldiers who would abandon his army. A story is told that, during a fierce battle, a young French soldier who broke the ranks. In a matter of hours though, he was caught by his own troops. Now, hearing the news and fearing the wrath of Napoleon’s justice, the mother of that young French soldier went to plead with Napoleon.

“Sir,” she begged, “please spare my son.”

“You son deserves death,” said Napoleon.

“Have mercy on him, sir,” the mother pleaded with tears.

“Mercy?” Napoleon shouted. “But your son does not deserve mercy!”

“O, yes, sir,” the mother dared to speak further, “I know that my son does not deserve mercy. For if he does, then it is not mercy at all.”

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