At the conclusion of the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter. Follow this link for the full document, Misericordia et Misera.
In the first numbered section, we read of the inspiration for the title, the John 8 encounter between the Lord, the woman caught in adultery, and–not to forget–the gathered crowd. Mercy and justice are not spectator sport, but as the emphasis here underscores, an opportunity for celebration and life:
1. This page of the Gospel could easily serve as an icon of what we have celebrated during the Holy Year, a time rich in mercy, which must continue to be celebrated and lived out in our communities. Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.
I don’t think Pope Francis overstates the case for mercy. As for us believers, the question seems to present itself: with which character do we identify? Do we come before the Lord with our sins? Is the experience of mercy part of our spiritual life? Have we moved beyond the misery (misera) of our actions and inaction?
Alternatively, do we identify with Jesus? When people come to us with their flaws, omissions, offenses, and affronts, are we prepare to withhold condemnation? Do we recall the Lord’s parable to show a mirror to the Church, revealing our attitude? Perhaps we have slipped into the role of the accusers.
A woman and Jesus meet. She is an adulteress and, in the eyes of the Law, liable to be stoned. Jesus, through his preaching and the total gift of himself that would lead him to the Cross, returned the Mosaic Law to its true and original intent. Here what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person and seeing the deepest desire hidden there; God’s love must take primacy over all else.
The mention of “desire” is a key point of understanding the Ignatian orientation in the spiritual life. Some Catholics find Pope Francis confusing, but he is most definitely a son of Ignatius Loyola. The spiritual life is a meeting between the human impulse of desire and the love of God. Here, the encounter is profound for the seeking soul. Jesus looks deeply into us, moving beyond our own awareness.
This Gospel account, however, is not an encounter of sin and judgment in the abstract, but of a sinner and her Savior. Jesus looked that woman in the eye and read in her heart a desire to be understood, forgiven and set free. The misery of sin was clothed with the mercy of love. Jesus’ only judgment is one filled with mercy and compassion for the condition of this sinner. To those who wished to judge and condemn her to death, Jesus replies with a lengthy silence. His purpose was to let God’s voice be heard in the conscience not only of the woman, but also in those of her accusers, who drop their stones and one by one leave the scene (cf. Jn 8:9).
Turning back to the identification of many believers with the crowd, we see the Lord’s response. Silence. Not nothing. But a lack of affirmation. If God indeed waits on the elder sisters and brothers, think about what that means for the lack of an experience of confirmation. Time to “let God’s voice be heard in the conscience … also in those of her accusers.” Would you agree?
Jesus then says: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?… Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again” (vv. 10-11). Jesus helps the woman to look to the future with hope and to make a new start in life. Henceforth, if she so desires, she can “walk in charity” (Eph 5:2). Once clothed in mercy, even if the inclination to sin remains, it is overcome by the love that makes it possible for her to look ahead and to live her life differently.
Does this explanation hold water? Does the experience of mercy give enough of an impulse to live “differently”? What else do you see in this opening section?