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Archbishop Follo: God Does Justice With His Mercy (Pope Francis)

With the invitation to ask and to give pardon which gives life and makes the Gospel credible.

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V Sunday of Lent – Year C – April 7, 2019
Roman Rite
Is 43,16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3,8-14; Jn 8.1-11
Ambrosian Rite
V Sunday of Lent of Lazarus
Deut 6.4a, 26.5-11; Ps 104; Rm 1.18-23a; Jn 11.1-53
1) To love is to forgive and to forgive is to love.
In the last Sunday’s Gospel, we have contemplated the embrace of the merciful Father who, with his love, rehabilitates the prodigal son who had gone away from home and wasted not only the inheritance claimed in advance but also his human dignity.
Today, we contemplate Jesus who writes on the ground, bowing his eyes so as not to hurt the adulterous woman even with his gaze.
Perhaps he wrote on the dust the sins of a fragile humanity. Certainly, with his gesture, he wrote the law of forgiveness on the heart of a life-thirsty woman whose sin was condemning her to stoning.
If I am not mistaken, there are two moments in which the Bible speaks of the writing finger of God. One, when on Mount Sinai this “finger” writes the commandments on the stone tablets to be given to the Jews. The other, when on the Mount Zion the finger of Christ writes on the floor of the atrium of the Temple.
How beautiful and how deep this gesture of Jesus is. It looks like the gesture of a child, or of a lover on the sand of the sea.
What did Jesus write? No one can say for sure. However, it is possible to say that to write Jesus lowered and touched the earth placing himself at the level of the woman. In this very simple gesture, there is a profound theology: God in the flesh of the Son came to touch our earth. Everything is earthly before Jesus, but He touches the earth to bring it back into the orbit of the sky.
Let us imagine with our mind and heart to be present at the scene described in the Gospel of today’s Roman liturgy. In the morning we can see Jesus present in the temple and the people who go to him. He sits down (the Greek version uses the word kathizo, what a teacher does when he sits at his desk to teach his students). Some scribes and some Pharisees come carrying a woman that they throw at his feet and ask, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now, in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?” The scribes and the Pharisees want the lapidating stones to “bounce off” from the woman to Christ, who doesn’t answer immediately to the question because it is a question posed as a mortal trap.
In fact, if He had challenged Moses’ law in order to save his reputation as a good man meek as a lamb (His Passion is coming), they would have stoned Him for blasphemy.
If He had agreed with the guilty verdict, He would have put headstones on His message of mercy.
Moreover, if from one side Jesus could not legitimate the sin, on the other I believe that He hated the fury of the fierce ones and the impudence of the sinners that wanted to be judges of the sins of the others.
Christ doesn’t fall in the trap and solves the dilemma between justice and pardon: He forgives. He doesn’t recant the Law but reveals the image of a God who loves his people so that they too can learn to be merciful. Doing so He makes brighter the true and happy news of the Gospel which is mercy, namely creative justice.
To teach mercy Christ writes on sand to show that for Him the words of the accusers have the same value as dust, while he carves his forgiveness in the heart of the adulteress and today on our hearts, which have become hearts of flesh thanks to the pain of sin. He, the only one without sin, says “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” to explain that those who want the application of the Law must first apply it to themselves, and to remind that also the accusers are sinners. When the woman was carried to him, Jesus lowered his eyes so as not to hurt her with his gaze. After having forgiven her, he looked at her and she understood that he was seeing in her a greatness and a dignity that even sin cannot destroy. He called her” Woman” in the same way he called his mother Mary at Cana and on the Cross, a supreme sign of God’s mercy.

  • A question of gaze

 To learn mercy, we must look at Christ with the same grateful eyes of this sinner who was saved by the pardon of the Redeemer, “Neither do I condemn you”. In the same way Christ will say to every one of us, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” The pure eyes of Christ crossed the pleading eyes of the adulteress. Christ saw in her the original beauty of her soul even if blurred by sin. The woman, whose soul’s eyes had been purified by forgiveness, saw the sky of which the Redeemer’s eyes are the windows
In the light of this encounter let’s make ours the introductory prayer of today’s liturgy: “Lord, you who in Christ make new everything” included our misery, make “bloom in our heart the song of gratitude and of joy”.
 The light of Christ’s eyes will reflect in ours and we will have a pure and grateful look as it is required to the consecrated Virgins whose presence makes us look up and refers to the truest reality toward which we all are set forth. The consecrated Virgins give themselves to God and remind us to have a contemplative look. Let’s us pray with them and with the Church so that we can be filled with the light and the gratefulness that become donation and service of love. (Rite of the Consecration of the Virgins # 24).

  • Love resurrects

If the Gospel chosen by today’s Roman liturgy celebrates the love that forgives, the one chosen by the Ambrosian liturgy speaking about Lazarus teaches about the love that resurrects.
Jesus and Lazarus loved each other like brothers. The Messiah very often used to visit and share the meal with him and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Strange enough- at least to our understanding- when he was told that Lazarus was ill, he waited a couple of days before going to his house and when he gets there his friend is already dead. The sisters of the deceased scold Jesus saying one after the other, “If you had been here our brother would have not died”. Christ is saddened more for the lack of faith of the people he loves than by their reproach. Crying he asks, “Where have you put him?”  Together they went to the tomb and Jesus, having had the tombstone removed, summoned his friend to life.
According to what we learn from the Gospel and if I’m not mistaken, three are the dead people that Christ has resurrected, the son of the widow of Naim, the daughter of Jaires and Lazarus, but he does these miracles not to manifest his might and to impress people.  I think that Jesus is moved by the excruciating pain of the ones who loved the dead persons: to console a mother, a father, and two sisters. I think that there is another very important consideration to keep in mind. In all cases, Jesus speaks of the dead as if they were asleep and not dead. Of the son of the widow, he doesn’t have the time to speak because the decision is too fast. However, even to him, He says, “I say to you, get up!” as if he were a lazy boy remaining in bed after time. When he is told that daughter of Jaires is dead, he answers,” She is not dead, she is sleeping”. When they confirm to Him that Lazarus is dead, he insists, “He is not dead, he is sleeping”. For him, Death is only a Sleep.  It is a sleep much deeper than the common sleep, but it is so deep that only a supernatural Love can break it. It is the Love asked for by the survivors. It is the Love of someone who cries when he sees the cry of the ones he loves. In calling the dead “asleep,” He teaches us that with Him death doesn’t have the last word over life because “sleep” doesn’t stop life forever.  He teaches us also that his Love, united to the love of the suffering, is stronger than death and can wake the “dormant”.
The consoling statement by Saint John of the cross: “At the evening of our life we will be judged on our love” can be finished in this way, “At the end of life we will be judged on Love and by Love awoken to the everlasting day.” With prayer, fasting and alms let’s open the eyes of the heart to recognize how much the Love, that is Providence for us and for all, can do.
Let’s pray more often the Virgin Mary and let’s prepare ourselves to live with her the Easter of Resurrection of her Son, our brother who is only Love.

  • The consecrated virgins and the adulterous episode.

Saint Augustine of Hippo well explains the teaching that for the consecrated virgins comes from the episode of the adulteress. This great saint, at the end of his commentary on the episode of the adulterous woman, concludes that the souls who did not commit sins must thank the Lord because, if they did not do so, this happened for a gift of divine grace. It is the famous text of the second book of Confessions, in which Saint Augustine writes clearly,” God forgives us also the sins that we have not committed”. In this regard, re-read the De sacra virginitate at nr. 4l and 42 because Augustine discusses them extensively in these chapters. He, establishing a comparison between the conduct of the consecrated virgins, irreproachable on the level of spiritual and Christian life, and the conduct of those whose moral life is not as blameless, wants to find the reason why the consecrated virgins have a reason for pride that makes them say: We are not like them. Augustine does not want the simulation of humility and says: The simulation of humility is the greatest pride. Simulation of humility means humility in words, humility with low eyes and nothing more; in fact, it is often, or it becomes a greater pride. The consecrated virgins must humbly imitate the adulteress in her pain and her total abandonment to Christ, who gives forgiveness to a woman who has had full confidence in his immense mercy.
                                                                                 Patristic Reading
                                                                           Saint Augustine of Hippo
                                                                                    The adulteress
TRACTATE XXXIII: Chapter VII. 40-53; VIII. 1-11.

  1. You remember, my beloved, that in the last discourse, by occasion of the passage of the Gospel read, we spoke to you concerning the Holy Spirit. When the Lord had invited those that believe on Him to this drinking, speaking among those who meditated to lay hold of Him, and sought to kill Him, and were not able, because it was not His will: well, when He had spoken these things, there arose a dissension among the multitude concerning Him; some thinking that He was the very Christ, others saying that Christ shall not arise from Galilee. But they who had been sent to take Him returned clear of the crime and full of admiration. For they even gave witness to His divine doctrine, when those by whom they had been sent asked, “Why have ye not brought him?” They answered that they had never heard a man so speak: “For not any man so speaks.” But He spake thus, because He was God and man. But the Pharisees, repelling their testimony, said to them: “Are ye also deceived?” We see, indeed, that you also have been charmed by his discourses. “Hath any one of the rulers or the Pharisees believed on him? But this multitude who know not the law are cursed.” They who knew not the law believed on Him who had sent the law; and those men who were teaching the law despised Him, that it; might be fulfilled which the Lord Himself had said, “I am come that they who see not may see, and they that see may be made blind.”(1) For the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, were made blind, and the people that knew not the law, and yet believed on the author of the law, were enlightened.


  1. “Nicodemus,” however, “one of the Pharisees, who had come to the Lord by night,”–not indeed as being himself unbelieving, but timid; for therefore he came by night to the light, because he wished to be enlightened and feared to be known;–Nicodemus, I say, answered the Jews, “Doth our law judge a man before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” For they perversely wished to condemn before they examined. Nicodemus indeed knew, or rather believed, that if only they were willing to give Him a patient hearing, they would perhaps become like those who were sent to take Him, but preferred to believe. They answered, from the prejudice of their heart, what they had answered to those officers, “Art thou also a Galilean?” That is, one seduced as it were by the Galilean. For the Lord was said to be a Galilean because His parents were from the city of Nazareth. I have said “His parents” in regard to Mary, not as regards the seed of man; for on earth He sought but a mother, He had already a Father on high. For His nativity on both sides was marvelous: divine without mother, human without father. What, then, said those would-be doctors of the law to Nicodemus? “Search the Scriptures, and see that out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.” Yet the Lord of the prophets arose thence. “They returned,” saith the evangelist, “every man to his own house.”


  1. “Thence Jesus went unto the mount;” namely, to mount “Olivet,”–unto the fruitful mount, unto the mount of ointment, unto the mount of chrism. For where, indeed, but on mount Olivet did it become the Christ to teach? For the name of Christ is from chrism; chri^sma in the Greek is called in Latin unctio, an anointing. And He has anointed us for this reason, because He has made us wrestlers against the devil. “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.” And He was not taken, for He did not yet deign to suffer.


  1. And now observe wherein the Lord’s gentleness was tempted by His enemies. “And the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman just taken in adultery: and they set her in the midst, and said to Him, Master, this woman has just been taken in adultery. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? But this they said, tempting Him, that they might accuse Him.” Why accuse Him? Had they detected Himself in any misdeed or was that woman said to have been concerned with Him in any manner? What, then, is the meaning of “tempting Him, that they might accuse Him”? We understand, brethren, that a wonderful gentleness shone out pre-eminently in the Lord. They observed that He was very meek, very gentle: for of Him it had been previously foretold, “Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O most Mighty; in Thy splendor and beauty urge on, march on prosperously, and reign, because of truth, and meekness, and righteousness.”(1) Accordingly, as a teacher, He brought truth; as a deliverer, He brought gentleness; as a protector, He brought righteousness. That He was to reign on account of these things, the prophet had by the Holy Spirit foretold. When He spoke His truth was acknowledged; when He was not provoked to anger against His enemies, His meekness was praised. Whilst, therefore, in respect of these two,–namely, His truth and meekness,–His enemies were tormented with malice and envy; in respect of the third,–namely, righteousness,–they laid a stumbling-block for Him. In what way? Because the law had commanded the adulterers to be stoned, and surely the law could not command what was unjust: if any man should say other than the law had commanded, he would be detected as unjust. Therefore they said among themselves, “He is accounted true, he appears to be gentle; an accusation must be sought against him in respect of righteousness. Let us bring before him a woman taken in adultery; let us say to him what is ordered in the law concerning such: if he shall approve her being stoned, he will not show his gentleness; if he consent to let her go, he will not keep righteousness. But, say they, that he may not lose the reputation of gentleness, for which he is become an object of love to the people, without doubt, he will say that she must be let go. Hence we find an opportunity of accusing him, and we charge him as being a transgressor of the law: saying to him, Thou art an enemy to the law; thou answerest against Moses, nay, against Him who gave the law through Moses; thou art worthy of death: thou too must be stoned with this woman.” By these words and sentiments, they might possibly be able to inflame envy against Him, to urge accusation, and cause His condemnation to be eagerly demanded. But this against whom? It was perversity against rectitude, falsehood against the truth, the corrupt heart against the upright heart, folly against wisdom. When did such men prepare snares, into which they did not first thrust their own heads? Behold, the Lord in answering them will both keep righteousness, and will not depart from gentleness. He was not taken for whom the snare was laid, but rather they were taken who laid it because they believed not on Him who could pull them out of the net.


  1. What answer, then, did the Lord Jesus make? How answered the Truth? How answered Wisdom? How answered that Righteousness against which a false accusation was ready? He did not say, Let her not be stoned; lest He should seem to speak against the law. But God forbid that He should say, Let her be stoned: for He came not to lose, what He had found, but to seek what was lost. What then did He answer? See you how full it is of righteousness, how full of meekness and truth! “He that is without sin of you,” saith He, “let him first cast a stone at her.” O answer of Wisdom! How He sent them unto themselves! For without they stood to accuse and censure, themselves they examined not inwardly: they saw the adulteress, they looked not into themselves. Transgressors of the law, they wished the law to be fulfilled, and this by heedlessly accusing; not really fulfilling it, as if condemning adulteries by chastity. You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess. For he knows what he is: for “no man knoweth the things of a man, but the spirit of man which is in him.” Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law. Had He said, Let not the adulteress be stoned, He would be proved unjust: had He said, Let her be stoned, He would not appear gentle: let Him say what it became Him to say, both the gentle and the just, “Whoso is without sin of you, let him first cast a stone at her.” This is the voice of Justice: Let her, the sinner, be punished, but not by sinners: let the law be fulfilled, but not by the transgressors of the law. This certainly is the voice of justice: by which justice, those men pierced through as if by a dart, looking into themselves and finding themselves guilty, “one after another all withdrew.” The two were left alone, the wretched woman and Mercy. But the Lord, having struck them through with that dart of justice, deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.”


  1. But when that woman was left alone, and all they were gone out, He raised His eyes to the woman. We have heard the voice of justice, let us also hear the voice of clemency. For I suppose that woman was the more terrified when she had heard it said by the Lord, “He that is without sin of you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But they, turning their thought to themselves, and by that very withdrawal having confessed concerning themselves, had left the woman with her great sin to Him who was without sin. And because she had heard this, “He that is without sin. let him first cast a stone at her,” she expected to be punished by Him in whom sin could not be found. But He, who had driven back her adversaries with the tongue of justice, raising the eyes of clemency towards her, asked her, “Hath no man condemned thee?” She answered, “No man, Lord.” And He said, “Neither do I condemn thee;” by whom, perhaps, thou didst fear to be condemned, because in me thou hast not found sin. “Neither will I condemn thee.” What is this, O Lord? Dost Thou, therefore, favor sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: “Go, henceforth sin no more.” Therefore the Lord did also condemn but condemned sins, not man. For if He were a patron of sin, He would say, Neither will I condemn thee; go, live as thou wilt: be secure in my deliverance; how much soever thou wilt sin, I will deliver thee from all punishment even of hell, and from the tormentors of the infernal world. He said not this.


  1. Let them take heed, then, who love His gentleness in the Lord, and let them fear His truth. For” The Lord is sweet and right.”(1) Thou lovest Him in that He is sweet; fear Him in that He is right. As the meek, He said, “I held my peace;” but as the just, He said, “Shall I always be silent?”(2) “The Lord is merciful and pitiful.” So He is, certainly. Add yet further, “Long-suffering;” add yet further, “And very pitiful:” but fear what comes last, “And true.”(3) For those whom He now bears with as sinners, He will judge as despisers. “Or despisest thou the riches of His long-suffering and gentleness; not knowing that the forbearance of God leadeth thee to repentance? But thou, after thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up for thyself wrath against the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds. (4) The Lord is gentle, the Lord is long-suffering, the Lord is pitiful; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. He bestows on thee space for correction; but thou lovest the delay of judgment more than the amendment of thy ways. Hast thou been a bad man yesterday? To-day be a good man. Hast thou gone on in thy wickedness to-day? At any rate change to-morrow. Thou art always expecting, and from the mercy of God makest exceeding great promises to thyself. As if He, who has promised thee pardon through repentance, promised thee also a longer life. How knowest thou what to-morrow may bring forth? Rightly thou sayest in thy heart: When I shall have corrected my ways, God will put all my sins away. We cannot deny that God has promised pardon to those that have amended their ways and are converted. For in what prophet thou readest to me that God has promised pardon to him that amends, thou dost not read to me that God has promised thee a long life.


  1. From both, then, men are in danger; both from hoping and despairing, from contrary things, from contrary affections. Who is deceived by hoping? He who says, God is good, God is merciful, let me do what I please, what I like; let me give loose reins to my lusts, let me gratify the desires of my soul. Why this? Because God is merciful, God is good, God is kind. These men are in danger by hope. And those are in danger from despair, who, having fallen into grievous sins, fancying that they can no more be pardoned upon repentance, and believing that they are without doubt doomed to damnation, do say with themselves, We are already destined to be damned, why not do what we please? with the disposition of gladiators destined to the sword. This is the reason that desperate men are dangerous: for, having no longer aught to fear, they are to be feared exceedingly. Despair kills these; hope, those. The mind is tossed to and fro between hope and despair. Thou hast to fear lest hope slay thee; and, when thou hopest much from mercy, test thou fall into judgment: again, thou hast to fear lest despair slay thee, and, when thou thinkest that the grievous sins which thou hast committed cannot be forgiven thee, thou dost not repent, and thou incurrest the sentence of Wisdom, which says, “I also will laugh at your perdition.”(5) How then does the Lord treat those who are in danger from both these maladies? To those who are in danger from hope, He says, “Be not slow to be converted to the Lord, neither put it off from day to day; for suddenly His anger will come, and in the time of vengeance, will utterly destroy thee. (1) To those who are in danger from despair, what does He say? “In what day soever the wicked man shall be converted, I will forget all his iniquities.”(2) Accordingly, for the sake of those who are in danger by despair, He has offered us a refuge of pardon; and because of those who are in danger by hope, and are deluded by delays, He has made the day of death uncertain. Thou knowest not when thy last day may come. Art thou ungrateful because thou hast to-day on which thou mayest be improved? Thus, therefore, said He to the woman, “Neither will I condemn thee;” but, being made secure concerning the past, beware of the future. “Neither will I condemn thee:” I have blotted out what thou hast done; keep what I have commanded thee, that thou mayest find what I have promised


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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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