Conformity to Christ and divine mercy

In the Gospel reading for today, we witness Jesus’s compassion for the woman caught in adultery and the lesson that he gives to others who are about to stone her. At one level, the story is a simple witnessing to forgiveness: we ought to forgive others because we are all ourselves sinful. It belongs to God to judge what a person has done or not done, and not to us. We can’t know the interior of another person’s heart unless they show it to us, but God deeply knows each one of us and our innermost motivations. The woman caught in adultery has a story, and her longer story is not reducible to being an adulterer. She has a longer life narrative that has led her to this place. Under Jewish law, she could have been stoned to death. But Jesus finds compassion more important than human laws, mercy more important than justice. God’s mercy comes from his own infinitely loving nature. Perhaps we can share in that divine mercy, but at times we have to rely only on a different human source of compassion: remembering our own sinfulness as a reason not to judge others too harshly for theirs.

In the “Dignity and Vocation of Women,” John Paul II wrote on this story and noted that although the woman was about to be stoned, the man who participated in the act of adultery was nowhere in sight. So often, he writes, women end up taking the judgment and men are relieved of it for the same. There is a larger institutional and cultural apparatus of patriarchy, that judges women more harshly than men in these same circumstances. Thus another element of the Gospel account to which we might attend is to consider all the forces that led the men to gather around the woman with these stones—forces cultural and even part of the institutionalized religion of the day—that stand in judgment instead of compassion, justice without mercy.

St Paul in the reading from Philippians contrasts faith with self-righteousness. Paul, of course, was famously a persecutor of Christians before his conversion, so when he speaks of self-righteousness as a personal shortcoming, he knows what he is talking about. Paul now contrasts that self-righteousness with faith. How does that faith come about? It’s not merely by trusting in God to sort out the difficulties in our lives that we cannot control or sort out, though that is part of it. Faith is also found through being conformed to Christ’s death in our own lives. The course of ordinary life includes dying our own kinds of “deaths” along with Christ: the death of things and people dear to us, and the death of ego that comes along with it. Paul admits that he is not yet done with his own process of dying to self, but he has hope that he is moving increasingly toward it, as he allows the losses and deaths in his own life to be conformed to Christ’s own death. Such faith is also connected back to mercy, because conforming our own wounds to those of Christ also makes possible loving others, along with Christ, in the midst of our own suffering. It’s that conformity to Christ in suffering and death that leads to sharing in the divine mercy.