Last Sunday the story of the prodigal son taught us that authentic justice does not lie in equitable remuneration, but rather in mercifulness. Today’s Gospel repeats the same message, but in an even clearer way. Applying it to a specific incident. This is not simply an intellectual contest between Jesus and his opponents, it involves a living person. The story about a woman caught in adultery is not found in the earlier manuscripts of the gospel of John. In many ways it fits better with the synoptic tradition, especially Luke’s Gospel. Regardless of its origin, this is one of the most popular stories found in the entire New Testament.
A woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. How can one be merciful and obey God’s law is the dilemma which Jesus faces. The law taught that one caught in adultery was to be stoned to death, and how can this be reconciled with the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. The Scribes and Pharisees have been chagrined by Jesus’ success and popularity. They have tried to destroy him in useless debates and discussions and they have failed miserably. But this time everything seems to be in their favor. They set a trap for him and will now witness his downfall. He cannot win. If he goes along with the punishment which is death to the sinner, then he will contradict his message of mercy. If he rejects it, then he is disobeying the law and can be brought to court as a religious agitator and he will be disgraced.
Jesus responds to the challenge with a simple sentence: "Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her." You can almost hear the crowd dropping their stones silently to the ground, the ones they had picked up ready to cast at the woman. When the crowd had left, Jesus asks the woman if anyone has condemned her. No one has. He then tells the woman to go and sin no more. The woman has been acquitted—and thus presented with the opportunity to begin a new life.
Fr John R. Mulvehill