Continuing the story of the woman caught in adultery, St. John reports on how Christ judged the case:
“He lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). St. Augustine explains: “He did not say, Stone her not, lest He should seem to speak contrary to the law. But God forbid that He should say, Stone her; for He came not to destroy that which He found, but to seek that which was lost. . . . This is the voice of justice. Let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners; the law carried into effect, but not by transgressors of the law.” St. Gregory the Great wisely teaches: “He who judges not himself first, cannot know how to judge correctly in the case of another. For though He know what the offence is, from being told, yet He cannot judge of another’s deserts, who supposing himself innocent, will not apply the rule of justice to himself.”
“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last” (v. 9a). Alcuin remarks: This is like our Lord; while His eyes are fixed, and He seems attending to something else, He gives the bystanders an opportunity of retiring: a tacit admonition to us to consider always both before we condemn a brother for a sin, and after we have punished him, whether we are not guilty ourselves of the same fault, or others as bad.”
“And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (v. 9b). St. Augustine notes: “There were left however two, the pitiable and the pitiful: . . . the woman, you may suppose, in great alarm, expecting punishment from one in whom no sin could be found. But He who had repelled her adversaries with the word of justice, lifted on her the eyes of mercy.”
“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord” (vv. 10-11a). St. Augustine remarks: “We heard above the voice of justice; let us hear now that of mercy.” And so: “Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (v. 11b).
Does He then condone sin? St. Augustine replies: “No, surely. Listen to what follows, ‘Go, and sin no more.’ So then our Lord condemned sin, but not the sinner. For did He favour sin, He would have said, Go, and live as thou wilt: depend on my deliverance: howsoever great thy sins be, it matters not: I will deliver thee from hell, and its tormentors. But He did not say this.”
Thus, the great Lawgiver and Judge gives a poignant example of how one ought to temper justice with mercy.
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).