Pity and the pitiful
What did the Lord Jesus reply? What did Truth reply? What did Wisdom reply? What did that righteousness against which a calamny was prepared reply? He did not say, “Let her not be stoned,” for then he would seem to be against the Law. But God forbid that he should say, “Let her be stoned”! For he did not come to lose what he had found, but to seek what he had lost (Lk 19:10). What then did he reply? See how full his reply is with righteousness, how full with gentleness and truth! “Let the one of you who is without sin,” he said, “throw the first stone at her.”
O answer of wisdom! How he sent them into themselves! They were outside themselves when they were accusing her; they weren’t looking within, at themselves. They saw the adulterous woman; they weren’t looking at themselves. You have heard the guardian of the Law, O Jews. You have heard him, O Pharisees. You have heard him, teachers of the Law; but you haven’t understood that he is the Lawgiver. What else does he signify to you when he writes on the ground with his finger? The Law was written by God’s finger, but because of the hard-hearted, it was written on stone (Ex 31:18). The Lord was now writing on the ground because he was looking for fruit.
… Let each of us consider himself, enter into himself, ascend the judgement seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, be forced to confess. For each knows what he is: “no one knows the things of a man except the spirit of a man which is in him” (1 Cor 2:11). Anyone looking closely at himself finds himself to be a sinner. Yes, indeed. Well, then, either let her go or accept the Law’s penalty along with her. If he said, “Let not the adulteress be stoned,” he would be convicted of injustice; if he said, “Let her be stoned,” he would not appear to be gentle. Let him say, then, what he ought to say who is both just and gentle: “Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” This is the voice of justice: Let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners; let the Law be fulfilled, but not by transgressors of the Law. Yes, this is the voice of justice, and, struck by that justice as if by a spike, looking within themselves and finding themselves guilty, “one by one, they all withdrew. Two were left: the pitiful woman and Pity [misera et misericordia]. But the Lord, having struck them with the spike of justice, did not deign to watch them as they fell, but turning his gaze away from them, “again wrote on the ground with his finger.”
With all the others gone and the woman left alone there, he raised his eyes to her. We have heard the voice of justice; let us now hear the voice of gentleness too. For I believe that the woman was even more terrified when she heard the Lord say, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” For having looked at themselves and by their withdrawal having admitted their own guilt, those others left the woman with her great sin before him who was without sin. And because she had heard, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her,” she expected that she would be punished by him in whom sin could not be found. But he who had driven off her adversaries with the language of justice, raising the eyes of mercy to her, asked her: “Has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” And he said, “Neither will I condemn you.” Neither will I, one whom you perhaps feared would condemn you because you found no sin in me, “neither will I condemn you.”
What, then, O Lord? Are you favoring sin? Of course not. Notice what follows: “Go and from now on sin no more.” So the Lord did condemn, but the sin and not the person. If he favored sins, he would say, “Nor will I condemn you. Go, live as you wish; be sure of my deliverance; as greatly as you may sin, I will free you from all punishment, even of hell, and the from the torment of the netherworld.” This is not what he said.
Let those who love the gentleness in the Lord pay attention, then, and fear his truth. For “the Lord is sweet and right” (Ps 24:8). You love it that he is sweet; fear that he is right. In his gentleness he said, “I have kept quiet”; but in his justice he said, “Shall I always be quiet?” (Is 42:14; LXX). “The Lord is compassionate and merciful.” That is true. But add: “patient,” and add: “and full of mercy,” but then fear what is said at the end: “and true” (Ps 85:15). For those whom he now bears with as sinners, he will judge as scorners of his mercy. “Or do you despise the riches of his patience and goodness, not knowing that the patience of God leads you to repentance? But according to the hardness of your heart and your impenitent heart, you are treasuring up for yourself wrath on the day of wrath and of the revelation of the just judgment of God who will render to each one according to his works” (Rom 2:4-6). The Lord is gentle; the Lord is patient; the Lord is merciful; but the Lord is also just, and the Lord is also right.
He gives you space for correction, but you love delay more than amendment. Were you a bad person yesterday? Be a good one today. Did you spend today in wickedness? Change at least tomorrow. You are always expecting it, and you make great promises to yourself from the mercy of God, as if he who promised you forgiveness if you repent, also promised you a longer life. How do you know what tomorrow may bring forth? You are right when you say in your heart: “When I correct my ways, God will forgive me all my sins.” We cannot deny that God promised forgiveness to those who have corrected themselves and turned around. But in any prophet you read to me that God has promised forgiveness to one who amends, you do not read that he has promised you a long life.
People are in danger, then, from both, from hoping and from despairing, from contrary things, from contrary affections. Who is deceived by hoping? The person who says, “God is good, God is merciful, I’ll do what pleases me, what I like; I’ll loosen the reins of my lusts, I’ll fulfill my soul’s desires. Why? Because God is merciful, God is good, God is kind.” These people are in danger because of their hope. In danger from despair, however, are people who fall into serious sins, but think that even if repentant they can’t be forgiven and conclude that they are certainly destined for damnation and say to themselves: “We’re sure to be damned, so why not do what we want?” They have the mind of gladiators destined for the sword. This is why desperate people are dangerous: not having anything to fear, they are greatly to be feared. Their despair kills these; hope kills those.
The mind is tossed between hope and despair. You should be afraid that hope may kill you and that when you place great hope in mercy you fall under judgment; you should also be afraid that despair may kill you and when you think that the serious sins you have committed cannot be forgiven, you don’t repent and so incur the judgment of Wisdom which says, “I will laugh at your destruction” (Prov 1:26). What, then, does the Lord do with those in danger from the two diseases? To those in danger because of their hope, he says: “Don’t delay being converted to the Lord, and don’t put it off from day to day. For his wrath shall come suddenly, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy you” (Sir 5:8-89). What does he say to those in danger because of their despair? “On whatever day the wicked man shall convert, I will forget all his iniquities” (Ez 18:21, 22, 27). For those in danger from despair he offers the haven of forgiveness; for those in danger from hope and deluded by delay he has made the day of death uncertain. You do not know when your last day will come. Are you ungrateful because you have today when you might be corrected? Thus he said to that woman: “Neither will I condemn you”; but made safe from your past, have a care for your future. “Neither will I condemn you”: I have blotted out what you committed; do what I have commanded you, and you will find what I promised you. (Augustine, Tractate on John 33, 5-8)