If He chooses justice and allows them to stone the woman, the crowds will resent His lack of mercy. However, if He extends mercy and lets her go, the leaders will charge Him with injustice. He must, they think, choose either justice or mercy. Instead He chooses both.
First, in justice our Lord reveals the deceit of the scribes and Pharisees. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). He does not mean here that only the perfectly innocent can execute justice. (If that were the case, we would never have justice.) Rather, he calls attention to their sinful motive; they are sinning at that very moment. They have no interest in the law. They ask the question to trap our Lord not to seek justice.
Second, in mercy our Lord forgives the woman: “Neither do I condemn you.” Notice that His mercy does not reduce the gravity of her sin. He does not overlook or trivialize what she has done. He does not blame someone else. He knows her guilt perfectly. So He commands her, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11).
We often make the same mistake as the scribes and Pharisees: we see justice and mercy as opposed to each other. Either justice or mercy, we think, when in fact they go hand in hand.
Justice, as the judgment of what we deserve for sin, calls us to repentance and therefore prepares us for mercy. By extending justice to a person, we in a sense show mercy because we enable that person to realize his wrongdoing and repent. Parents punish children, for example, not because they hate them, but to correct their faults which is merciful. Justice is not opposed to mercy at all. Justice prepares us for mercy.
Nor does mercy deny justice. Certainly false mercy overlooks or trivializes sin, making light of what in justice we deserve. True mercy, however, looks directly at sin, acknowledges its horror, understands fully the just punishment deserved and then remits that punishment. Mercy presumes what justice demands, but then generously absolves us of it.
Justice and mercy work beautifully together, and make no sense apart. Justice leads up to mercy, and mercy picks up where justice ends. Justice that does not allow for mercy is cold and inhuman. Mercy that does not presume justice is irresponsible and sentimental. St. Thomas Aquinas says it simply: “Justice without mercy is cruelty.” But at the same time: “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution.”
We experience justice and mercy most especially in Confession. When we confess our sins, we condemn ourselves in justice. The priest, then, does not trivialize our sins or offer us false mercy. He acknowledges the demands of justice. He confirms the gravity of our sins and our guilt. At the same time, however, he extends mercy. With the words of absolution he remits the punishment for our sins. We no longer incur eternal damnation.
By His death on the Cross our Lord reveals perfectly the demands of both divine justice and divine mercy. In justice, we deserve that death; but in mercy He embraces it for us. Thus He unites both justice and mercy in His perfect sacrifice of love.
Fr. Scalia is parochial vicar of St. Patrick Parish in Fredericksburg.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)