We’ve heard this expression many times and it still holds true. It clearly identifies one of Jesus’ central teachings: Hate the sin. Love the sinner.
Today’s gospel seems to be an enactment of that saying. The sin in the story is clear—a woman is caught in the act of adultery. Everyone in the story hates the sin—the crowd, the leaders, Jesus, even the woman herself.
Though they all hate the sin, there is a disagreement on what to do with the sinner. Some believe that she should be executed by stoning for her crime as prescribed by Mosaic law. Jesus believes she should not.
There are three things I see in this story I would like to share: a principle, a qualification to that principle, and a command.
The principle is this: No person should be equated with his or her sin.
People are responsible for their sins, but no person should be defined simply by the sins they commit. Jesus sees the sin of the woman but he sees something more. He also sees the part of the woman that remains good, the part that could change, the hope that things could be different—and it has been taught by the Catholic church through the centuries that the dignity and worth of every person remains despite the crimes or sins they may commit.
Regardless of the horrible things that people do, we continue to believe that the image of God within them is never completely erased. This is why the consistent teaching in the Catholic tradition has been that the taking of human life, even when legally justified, is only a last resort. That is why the papacy speaks strongly against capital punishment, assisted suicide, abortion, and war. No person can be completely defined by his or her sin. There always remains a part of every person that is good, a part that can be loved.
This can be a real challenge to us who would follow Jesus because when people attack us—when people hurt us—we are strongly inclined to simply see them as bad people, as people without any worth or value. Yet what Jesus taught reminds us that there is more, that there remains in each person a dignity and value that cannot be taken away. We are challenged to find that value because it is only in claiming that hidden goodness that we can ever get beyond our hurt—ever reconcile ourselves to what has happened—ever find the power to forgive. The fundamental principle, then, is that no person can be equated with his or her sin. That leads us to the qualification.
The qualification is: We must protect ourselves.
Even as we try to recognize the good that remains in every person, we cannot be naïve and ignore the harm that can come from a person’s actions. We must take steps to prevent people from blowing up buildings, from using violence to attain their ends. We must take steps to protect ourselves from those who would manipulate us and abuse us. Jesus says to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Jesus is not naïve about the power of sin and neither should we be naïve.
As followers of Christ we are caught between a principle and a qualification. We seek some way of making these two truths work together even as we try to protect ourselves from the actions of those who could harm us. Jesus teaches us to keep looking for the goodness and the dignity that remains in every human person.
Therefore, as we try to gauge our response to those who attack or hurt us, we must do so with profound humility. We should never react in vengeance or hatred. We should always limit our response to the absolute minimum required to protect ourselves. Yet, because our human nature is weak, we are often inclined to go further. Once we have taken steps to protect ourselves, we are still tempted to strike back at the one who has hurt us.
This desire leads to the command, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
When we ask whether we can respond in violence beyond the need to protect ourselves, Jesus says we can, but only if we are without sin. This is a command we cannot follow, since none of us are without sin. If we would follow Jesus’ command, there will be no throwing of stones by any of us.