Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
This beautiful story, the scholars are agreed, did not originally belong in John’s gospel. It was an early ‘floating’ tradition that was pasted into various manuscripts, and even into Luke’s gospel at one time. That attests to the power of the story: it was not allowed to float away. It is regarded as canonical and inspired, like the rest of the gospel.
The dramatic power of the story is very impressive. At the end, as St Augustine remarked, we are left only with "misera et misericordia": ‘the pitiable woman and Mercy.’ The word ‘misericordia’ (mercy) comes from ‘misereor’ (to take pity) and ‘cor’ (the heart). The accusers were relying on logic, but Jesus had a heart.
They had logic on their side, as they thought. They tried to place him in an impossible position: if he was for mercy, he was setting himself against the Law of Moses, which prescribed death by stoning for such an offence (Deut 22); this would get him into trouble with the religious authorities. If he was for stoning, he could be denounced to the Romans for incitement to murder.
The story is a classic for showing how love can defeat logic.
Act out the story. Or do so, at least, in your mind. It is one of the most dramatic pieces in the whole New Testament; a film-maker would not have to add anything. See the intelligence that Jesus showed when he was in a real fix: they thought they had him cornered, but he not only escaped, he triumphed. So much so that they could only slink away – “beginning with the eldest,” John adds with irony. It was intelligence allied to love. Too often, intelligence is allied to greed or the quest for power or to vanity; but what a force it is in the world when it is allied to love and mercy!
What a danger to us all are intelligent heartless people! If you have logic and no heart you are a great danger to yourself and others. "Poets do not go mad," wrote Chesterton; "but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom." "I am not in any sense attacking logic," he added. "I only say that this danger does lie in logic." There's no fool like a logical fool, because he is committed to defending his foolishness. And from his foolishness mischief is sure to follow.
"Neither do I condemn you," said Jesus to the woman. Mercy is God's story. Leo the Great said that Jesus is the hand of God's mercy stretched out to us. Mercy is God's kind of justice, said St Thérèse of Lisieux.
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