April 7; 5th Sunday in Lent; Year C

God shows mercy but demands accountability

5th Lent2I’m not trying to elicit sympathy, though some understanding would be most welcomed; but, I just want to say from the outright that being a Parish Priest is a pretty tough job!  And that’s inevitable because trouble comes with the job description. The buck has to stop with me. I am often required to navigate between competing interests of parishioners, trying to mediate conflicts, attempting to adjudicate their complaints and demands for justice. The problem is that people often want me to act as judge rather than a mediator, they want blood rather than a sermon on forgiveness or how to live in peace with each other. And more often than not, I also end up being on the “hate” list of those who feel that their demands are not met, and justice has not been done.

In today’s gospel, we find our Lord in a similar dilemma. The enemies of the Lord were out to discredit Him by whatever means, and this was a good opportunity as any. So the real target of their stoning was not the woman. It was Jesus. As they laid out the accusations against the woman, they demanded a response from the Lord, knowing that whichever path He took, it would be used against Him. Under Roman law, a person could only be put to death by the judge, otherwise it was murder. Thus, if the Lord had answered that the woman was to be stoned, He would have been breaking the Roman law. Not only this, but the act of stoning this woman would have gone against the mercy, grace and forgiveness that He had been preaching about.

But if His answer was to let the woman go, then He would not have been upholding the Jewish law. The Law said, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die” (Deuteronomy 22:22). The Lord Himself had been teaching the people that whoever loves God will obey God. So, to not stone this woman would mean that Jesus was not in obedience to God, which is also a sin. Here they were trying to force Him to make a choice between, on the one hand accepting the Mosaic law which ordered the woman to be stoned to death, and thus incurring Roman displeasure for flouting the ruling which forbade the Jews from inflicting the death penalty; and on the other hand, complying with the Roman ruling but disregarding the law of Moses, to the evident disapproval of His fellow-Jews. His enemies were trying to trap the Lord into a choice between gentleness and righteousness; between mercy and justice.

Of course, our Lord’s response keeps both the demands of justice and of mercy. He did not speak against the Law or contradict it by saying she should not be stoned, nor did He say she should be stoned. Instead, He put it back on the woman’s accusers, saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” With this, He forced the woman’s accusers to look inward at their own guilt in violating the very same law. There are no two sets of rules – one for themselves and another for the woman. He was calling them to integrity. Most of us are guilty of this shameful dissonance. We demand justice or punishment be meted out unto others, but then we plead for mercy for ourselves. The challenge of the Lord ultimately causes all to depart, leaving only the woman and our Lord, the only one qualified to cast the first stone because only He alone was sinless. However, the woman receives mercy instead, with this admonition: “Neither do I condemn you, go away, and don’t sin anymore.”

This seems to be a lovely perfect ending. Most people love the way our Lord showed mercy to this woman, and they should. Her story resonates with so many of us. We too have often felt condemned and judged, whenever others choose to highlight our faults. Our immediate response would be, “See what Jesus did? He did not condemn and you should not too.” But here lies the danger of a false idea of mercy. We are in danger of being deceived into believing that we can do whatever we please, letting loose the reins to our desires, in the belief that God, in His goodness and mercy, will simply overlook this. In other words, we have no need for repentance or worry, for God will save us regardless. This type of mercy seems to act like a white-wash, covering up all sin and not actually changing the situation of our lives.

But such ‘mercy’ is false mercy. This understanding of mercy, which allows a person to become at peace with sin, is far from the mercy shown by the Lord, because His true concern is for our liberation from sin. True mercy, in the words of St. John Paul II, “signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity” of the world. Justice is never forgotten. On the contrary, in overcoming sin, love transformed into mercy restores right relationships, or justice, by restoring the dignity and value of the offending party. Furthermore, mercy always calls the sinner to conversion. For example, in the case of the woman caught in adultery, our Lord is restoring her to a just relationship with God and with others by forgiving her sin, and allowing her the freedom to do the right thing. Our Lord would not have been merciful if He had forgiven her the sin and told her it was okay to go on committing adultery. Mercy releases us from sin and allows us to live in friendship with God. Mercy does not make sin acceptable. Mercy is not a white-washing-over of sin, but a true forgiveness which restores us to holiness. It doesn’t simply turn a blind eye and pretend everything is okay.

For those being deceived by presumptuous false hope that all will be saved, fear of God’s justice is the antidote. To these, the Lord directs the words, “go away, and don’t sin anymore.” Mercy goes hand in hand with justice because right along with Jesus’ message of mercy and grace is His message of accountability. Mercy can never be a license to sin. When you come down to it, everyone wants mercy and grace, but no one wants to be held accountable.  But when we are holding people accountable, we need to do it as the Lord would.  Whatever you do in mercy must be done in love for the other and only act for the good of the other. The decisions we make need to be made from love, care and compassion.  They should not be delivered as punishment for punishment’s sake, or as retribution for a wrong done, or as vengeance.  The human reaction that comes to us when we are wronged, or perceive a wrong, is to lash out and retaliate, or make sure that person “gets what they have coming to them.” 

Mercy must always put us in a true relationship with God and others. The sinner is loved, but the good that God intends, has as its purpose, the conversion of the sinner from sin, making sure that the sinner does not remain in sin, since that would be an evil. Therefore loving the sinner and calling him to conversion is how we see mercy directly reunited with justice. It has nothing to do with any sort of tolerance with respect to the sin, rather it is about seeking the conversion of the sinner. St. Pope John Paul II once wrote “According to Catholic doctrine, no mercy, neither divine nor human, entails consent to the evil or tolerance of the evil. Mercy is always connected with the moment that leads from evil to good. Where there is mercy, evil surrenders. When the evil persists, there is no mercy.”

I hope that the next time we feel like condemning someone or demanding justice be meted out to another, we should take pause and ask ourselves, “Have we not sinned ourselves?” “Have we not made mistakes too?” “Do we not require the mercy which we do not deserve and seek to avoid the punishment that we do deserve?” Well, if the answer is yes, remember that the One who could cast that first stone, the Sinless One is now looking straight into your eyes with mercy and inviting you to turn to your neighbour, to the one who has wronged you, “Neither do I condemn you, go away, and don’t sin anymore.”