A Case of Adultery: The Charge

The story of the woman caught in adultery is illustrative of the jurisprudence of Jesus Christ: prudent justice tempered with mercy. St. John recounts the event:

“Jesus went unto the mount of Olives” (Jn 8:1). St. Augustine writes: “And where ought Christ to teach, except on the mount of Olives; on the mount of ointment, on the mount of chrism. For the name Christ is from chrism, chrism being the Greek word for unction.” Alcuin adds: “The mount of Olives also denotes the height of our Lord’s pity, olive in the Greek signifying pity. The qualities of oil are such as to fit in to this mystical meaning. For it floats above all other liquids: and the Psalmist says, ‘Thy mercy is over all Thy works’ (Ps 144:9).

“And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them” (v. 2). Alcuin notes: “His returning early in the morning, signifies the new rise of grace. . . . The sitting down represents the humility of His incarnation. And the people came to Him, when He sat down, that is, after taking up human nature, and thereby becoming visible, many began to hear and believe on Him.”

Certain scribes and Pharisees posed a legal question to Jesus: “They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (vv. 4-5) The dilemma is this, notes St. Augustine: “If He decide to let her go, He will not do justice; for the law cannot command what is unjust: . . . but to maintain His meekness, which has made Him already so acceptable to the people, He must decide to let her go.”

“Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground” (v. 6). St. Augustine sees His bowing His head to write on the ground as “an expression of humility.”  St. Bede the Venerable suggests: “His writing with His finger on the ground perhaps showed that it was He who had written the law on stone.” Alcuin explains it thus: “The ground denotes the human heart, which yieldeth the fruit either of good or of bad actions: the finger jointed and flexible, discretion. He instructs us then, when we see any faults in our neighbours, not immediately and rashly to condemn them, but after searching our own hearts to begin with, to examine them attentively with the finger of discretion.”

Next, the ruling . . .

Quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers, Vol. IV, Part I (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1845).

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