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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Justice and Mercy

Don't you just love having one of those "aha!" moments? I had one while watching "Jesus of Nazareth" on DVD the other night. It was that scene when the case of the adulteress was brought before our Lord:

  And the scribes and the Pharisees bring unto him a woman taken in adultery: and they set her in the midst, And said to him: Master, this woman was even now taken in adultery. Now Moses in the law commanded us to stone such a one. But what sayest thou? And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him. But Jesus bowing himself down, wrote with his finger on the ground. When therefore they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again stooping down, he wrote on the ground. But they hearing this, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest. And Jesus alone remained, and the woman standing in the midst. Then Jesus lifting up himself, said to her: Woman, where are they that accused thee? Hath no man condemned thee? Who said: No man, Lord. And Jesus said: Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.

The "aha" moment was not about the Lord's brilliant answer to the scribes and Pharisees. It was when I considered both how the Law of Moses did indeed prescribe capital punishment and how the Lord showed the woman mercy. It's easy enough to thus conclude that the Law of Moses was mistaken, but crashes into the wall of the Law being both inspired by the Holy Spirit and assured by the Lord's own words: "amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled." (Matthew 5) Shocking as it sounds to 21st century Catholic sensibilities, there really is such a thing as mortal sin. But this is a death that the Lord does not take pleasure in, "but that the wicked turn from his way, and live" rather than die: for God is love. But the Lord is also just, and there is no other way to look at it: mortal sin is mortal, and that is the objective truth about the nature of mortal sin.

However, Christ is the Father's mercy. In him, justice is not set aside, but he himself expiates for the sin. When he said "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone," that, too is truthful. Mortal punishment is merited by mortal sin, but no more is such punishment ours to mete out. It is his alone, and in his mercy and love, he metes it out on himself on the cross. His sacrifice is all the more incredible when we truly consider how our sins nailed him to that cross, and that this horrible death was our just punishment -- except that he took them from us unto himself instead.

And there is the "aha" -- and so we must pay earnest attention to our Lord's words to us: "Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more." And in each mortal sin we commit, we must remember that the same death is earned, but the same mercy is offered to us, again and again. And if we persist in such sinfulness, how utterly ungrateful we are, and how cheap we make the sacrifice Christ made on the cross for us. Becoming then numb to the graciousness of this mercy, we risk scorning its worth in innocent blood, making us callous, devoid of gratitude and, in pride, greeting such mercy with contempt instead.

Lord, may I never scorn your mercy! May I cling to your cross tightly, and respond to you in love -- then do with me as you will, only never let me leave your wounded side!

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