On the weekend that the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8:3-11. We’ve all heard this reading at Mass over the years, but I recently noticed an aspect of the story that had never caught my attention before.
As John recounts, the scribes and Pharisees caught a woman committing adultery and brought her before Jesus to see if He would endorse stoning her, as the law of Moses commanded. They were really hoping to catch Jesus contradicting the religious law so they would have a reason to persecute him, but He was too shrewd for them. Instead of saying anything, Jesus started writing on the ground with His finger. When they asked Him again, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
That answer sure turned the tables on the scribes and Pharisees! They all left, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
A lot is made of Jesus telling the woman, “Do not sin again,” but what occurred to me is that we never hear the woman acknowledge doing anything wrong or asking for mercy. We can safely presume she doesn’t want to be stoned to death, but we don’t know if she was sorry for what she did or just sorry she got caught. Regardless, perhaps Jesus granted her mercy without her asking for it in the hopes that mercy would lead her to repentance.
It reminds me of the scene in the book/play/movie “Les Miserables,” in which the character Jean Valjean, who has just been released from 19 years in prison for stealing bread to support his family, finds food and shelter with a kindly bishop. The next morning, the destitute Valjean steals some silverware from the bishop’s home, but is soon apprehended by the police, who return him to the bishop for identification. Instead of condemning Valjean for his theft, however, the bishop tells the police he had freely given Valjean the silverware so he could get money to build his new life. And the bishop even gives him a couple of extra silver candlesticks!
Again, we have a situation where someone is guilty, but receives mercy rather than condemnation, even though he did not specifically ask for forgiveness. The bishop is insightful enough to know that the crime committed against Valjean by the government was far more egregious than the theft of the silverware. And so, the bishop prays that his mercy to Valjean will lead him to a new life—and the story proves out that it does.
Then, of course, there is the example of Jesus Himself who, while dying on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus is talking about the same people who supported His crucifixion. By human standards, He should be consumed with anger at them, but His words convey more sadness than rage at how foolish humanity is. And instead of using His final words to share thoughts of vengeance, he asks mercy for those who are responsible for killing Him, even though they had not repented.
The ideal situation, of course, is that when we commit a wrong, we acknowledge it, then ask for forgiveness. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and everybody’s story and psyche are different. For the woman caught in adultery and for Jean Valjean, maybe they have so little experience being on the receiving end of goodness and kindness that they need to experience it before they can find their way to the light. In these cases, mercy can precede repentance—be the motivator for repentance. And practicing that kind of mercy is certainly divine.
(Photo credit: Lawrence OP on Best Running)