We need to remember that what we call justice and mercy are shadows on the cave wall, reflections of something so infinitely greater that we see it best in the blinding light of Calvary – where He forgives and asks the Father to forgive those who nailed him to the tree, and where, in extremis, he forgives Dismas. What is this love? It blinds us, it overwhelms us, could we get anywhere close to it when we get cross and sulk over goodness knows what slights?
The woman taken in adultery is guilty. She’s worse than a whore, she’s an adulteress and everyone knows what she ‘deserves’. We seem to need to presume she is repentant, but where is the sign of that? We know she ought to be, so we put it there for our comfort. The writer did not do that.
Instead he makes us confront something which makes us uncomfortable – Jesus, the only one who could justly have judged her, for he alone there was without sin, refuses to. He bids her sin no more.
What are we meant to take away from this? First we have to read it in that blinding light of Calvary and the Resurrection – which made all things new. It raised us from our sins, not by convicting us of them and then demanding repentance – but by forgiving us in love and then – and then what? And that’s where it gets scary for the elder brother and the Pharisee in all of us, because the other side of that is our desire that there should be justice and order and reparation, and it offends both our sense of these things, and of what God wants, to talk about forgiveness in the absence of confession and repentance – what on earth would follow from people getting the idea they are forgiven, why, they’d surely just carry on sinning?
Would they? Don’t we anyway? It isn’t like we say the sinner’s prayer, or go to Mass, or whatever and then we never sin again. We’re like Paul, we’re running the race. We don’t want that prize to go to someone who isn’t struggling to work in the vineyard we entered at the beginning to the long and toilsome day – our sense of justice says it isn’t right they should get what we get if they come for the last hour. There’s that shadow on the wall – we think, we know, the Church says (or we say it does) – but what does God say? What is his mercy? It extends to us. I don’t deserve it. If I have repented, I will sin again, and again, and be reconciled, and so on and again – there is no health in me save what I have from him. So who am I to complain if someone with sincere repentance comes to Him at the last, having been forgiven, but never having repented before. Am I the Just Judge?
Repentance matters, but the process by which God’s love and the Spirit draw it from our hard hearts is a great mystery and one to stand in awe of – for if we confess his name, it has already been drawn from us. Are we jealous children that we think Grace rationed so that if that sinner over there gets it, this miserable sinner here gets less? We speak as we find, we see Grace as we can, but we don’t see it as God can, we are not God. If being forgiven took hold in the adulteress’ heart and led her to immediate repentance, good, marvellous, but we’re not told that. How convenient and reassuring if the passage had ended with the words ‘and she did, indeed, go and sin no more’. Except it wouldn’t be reassuring, it wouldn’t speak to us where we are – we’d know it wasn’t true. So why would we find it so hard to take that we insist that there must have been repentance? Maybe she repented later, maybe on her death-bed, we don’t know, and why should we know. We know what we are told – she was a dreadful sinner caught in the act, and God did not judge her.
In our fear we think, perhaps, but how dreadful, women will get the idea they can go off and commit adultery – as Chalcedon’s commentary showed, that was just what some Christians leaders thought. We know some of the earliest heresies concerned the idea that if you were forgiven, you would think you could go and do what you like – but then such ideas never die, they come from sin, and we should not think we can suppress them – we can confront them in the blinding light of Calvary and see them for the sin they are – and try to have the faith that God knows what he’s doing and does not actually require our advice – just our love and faith.