Our Lord once told a parable about a tax collector and a publican who went to the Temple to pray (LK 18:9-14). One of them sang his own praises, bragging about his righteousness and despising others less virtuous. The other humbly begged for God's mercy. While the tax collector was justified by God, the braggart was not.
We might say that today's Gospel reading provides a visible example of this, if we take into consideration who is involved here. The scribes and Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman accused of adultery. They are not really interested in her welfare. Rather, she is a pawn in a plan to trip Jesus up. If he agrees with Mosaic law and argues that she should be stoned, then he is no friend of sinners. If he says she should be set free, then he is no observer of the Mosaic law. Either way, they think they have Him.
Then comes the response: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
How often this is invoked by those who simply do not wish to be corrected or by those who would deny there is such a things as truth, right and wrong, moral and immoral. Basically the argument seems to be, "You are no better then I am. Who are you to judge? You have no room to speak."
The truth is, we can and do make judgments about right and wrong. If someone steals my car, it is wrong. That does not give me the right to hunt the culprit down and string him up, but we do have to acknowledge a law has been broken. If someone goes barreling down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic without using turn signals, we get angry because we know it is dangerous and endangers other people's safety. That does not give me the right to run them off the road or spend the next several hours calling the person every name in the book. In other words, we have to acknowledge certain actions are good and certain actions are immoral. We have a duty to one another to provide fraternal correction. If we love someone, we can do no less. But, it must be done with humility and charity. The final judgment of a soul belongs to God. It is His place alone to reward the just and punish the sinner. We correct one another because we do not want others to suffer those punishments. We do not attack, we do not belittle. We aim to correct.
When Our Lord speaks to the Pharisees, He is getting at something much deeper. We are never told what Jesus wrote in the sand, although some have suggested that He was writing out the sins of the accusers. Are they so sure of their own righteousness? If they believed the woman deserved death as punishment for her sins, how would they judge themselves? What punishment might they deserve?
Confronted with the reality of their own sin, the Pharisees and scribes drop their rocks and walk away. They could have begged Our Lord, who came to call sinners to repentance, for mercy and found it. They could have been set free. Instead, they walk away. Their sins remain.
Our Lord approaches the woman and speaks such tender and beautiful words.
"Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more." With those words come new freedom and new life. The Lord's mercy is meant to win this woman's heart and soul. Jesus' words to the woman are very much like the words we hear each time we receive the Sacrament of Penance: "I absolve you of your sins. Your sins have been forgiven. Go in peace."
Jesus' words are, indeed, the words of everlasting life. God is merciful, but He is also just. He will give to each of us what we deserve. Being aware of our own sinfulness, our own weaknesses, may help us be a little more patient and understanding with others in theirs. And, if our words and actions help others turn away from sin, thanks be to God they have chosen life.