One would think that in today’s technologically, economically and socially advanced age, death penalty would have no place in our society. Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, the reality is, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where the death penalty is retained, such as China, India, the United States, Indonesia,Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among all mostly Islamic countries, as is maintained in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka. Just recently Brunei introduced a new Islamic law that sexual relations between men are punishable by death through stoning. In the Philippines, although capital punishment has been outlawed in 2006, several politicians with the blessing of President Duterte, are advocating the relegalization of death penalty.
In today’s gospel of the 5th Sunday of Lent, the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. As prescribed by Mosaic Law the punishment for someone like her is death penalty by stoning.
The pharisees and the scribes did this in order to trap Jesus. This is a no-win situation for Jesus, or so they thought. On the one hand, if Jesus orders that she be stoned, he is in trouble with the Romans, who have taken the right to impose death penalty away from the Judeans. On the other hand, if he advocates that she not be stoned, he would appear to deny the law of Moses and thereby put himself in a bad light with Jewish officials.
Jesus, however, was a master not just of not falling into their traps but also of calling their bluff. Jesus used their own trap to expose their hypocrisy. In response to their continual badgering, Jesus challenges this overzealous lynch mob to examine their motives: “Let the one among you who is without sin—let that one be first to east a stone at her?” Appearing to be seekers after law and order, they are exposed as hypocrites simply bent on protecting their own power. Jesus’ delay tactic of scribbling on the ground has allowed some time for this reality to sink in. One by one, the accusers depart, leaving Jesus alone with the accused.
Besides hypocrisy, Jesus exposed their discrimination against the poor woman. If this woman was caught in the very act of adultery, then there had to have been a man with her when she was caught. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with her? Did the scribes and Pharisees just let him go? The law of Moses prescribes stoning him too.
Jesus’ response, most of all, revealed the nature of God’s judgment in the face of our sins. When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. As the letter of James (2:13) says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And as Pope Francis said, “He has the ability to forget. … He kisses you, he embraces you, and he says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now, on, sin no more.’ Only that counsel does he give you.
God is not here giving approval to immorality. As Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” St. Augustine commented on these words of Jesus, “You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people.”
Jesus’ attitude is reflected in the other readings today. In the first reading, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God said through the prophet Isaiah that he is preparing a new world order for them: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!”
In the second reading, Paul, writing to the Philippians about the legalistic teachers who would impose the fullness of Jewish tradition and practice upon Christian Gentiles, insists on the newness that faith in Jesus has brought into his life as a keeper of the Torah.
The readings today challenges our hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It is easy for us to take a self-righteous attitude toward the world; it is much more difficult to take Jesus’ attitude: “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” All of us have contributed to the darkness of the world; none of us can cast the first stone.
Jesus action in the gospel today and belief in God’s infinite mercy has led the Church to seriously challenge capital punishment all throughout history—whether by stoning, hanging, gas, poison, or electric shock—as a moral means for pursuing justice and protecting the common good.
Our work during Lent is like that of the adulterous woman: to truthfully face our sinfulness and faithfully remain with Jesus. We too are sinners. We too are in need of mercy. Though we sin, Jesus only wishes new life for us.
Let us today seek God’s mercy. Let us recognize our own shortcomings, and seek the help of Our Blessed Mother in confessing them before God.
Here is the Holy Week schedule at the shrine.
 “Capital Punishment,” Wikipedia. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment
 Pope Francis, “Mercy is the Lord’s Most Powerful Message Today,” March 17, 2013
 St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 33, 4-6. 8: CCL 36, 307-310