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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 werent looking within, at themselves. They saw the adulterous woman; they werent 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 Gods 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 Laws 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, Ill do what pleases me, what I like; Ill loosen the reins of my lusts, Ill fulfill my souls 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 cant be forgiven and conclude that they are certainly destined for damnation and say to themselves: Were 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 dont 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)

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Powerful! What a great psychologist Augustine was. I'd love to hear a dialogue between him and Buuddha, another great psychologist, but without the promises of Jesus. How different their world-views and how-to-live views.

This beautiful Gospel story has non-controversial, universal resonance. How easy it is to agree that a woman shouldn't be stoned to a brutal death, with the admonition that all of us are sinners. The larger question is how to apply this admonition to every day life. When, if ever, is it appropriate to be judgmental? When, if ever, is it appropriate to inflict punishments on others, based on our judgments? Is it only at the level of capital punishment that we must heed the lessons of this Gospel? Or are there broader admonishments? Augustine's homily (above) has clear guidance for the sinner, but what guidance has Augustine for the judge?- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

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.Have we people lost some sense of sin because our life nowadays is much more likely to be long, and much less likely to end suddenly and dramatically? Then we can always delay thinking about amends, fairly safely.

Those words, "misera et misericordia", are really hard to translate. In French it might be "La miserable et le misericordieux" ("miserable" has two meanings, miserable/pitiful and criminal/sinful, so that works well, maybe even better than the original...), but in English there is no noun for "misera", is there?At first glance I admit I didn't care much for your wording, but it's better than anything I can think of. Or maybe a freeer translation would work better? "Hope and the hopeless", "The Friend and the friendless". Changes the meaning but preserves the musical symmetry

Mercy and misery?

Misery and mercy: I like that one.

Larry --That is an enormous everyday ethical problem. We need to know whether other people are virtuous or not because if for no other reason than that we're inter-dependent. And parents often need to judge their children if they are to teach them what honesty and truthfulness, etc, are. But how do we know if someone is virtuous if others don't tell us about their (our) failures? Should we just remember that all judgments are provisional even when there is corroborating evidence?It seems to me that Church teaching is not entirely consistent about this.

Augustines homily (above) has clear guidance for the sinner, but what guidance has Augustine for the judge?Larry,I highly doubt Augustine has advice for the Judge, since in this case the judge is God himself. And, it seems to me that his clear advice for us sinners is that our judgements, at least in terms of punishment, are almost always wrong.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.