From death penalty to eternal life

In 12 countries, there remains a death penalty for adultery, and in several others, mob justice inflicts it extra-judicially.

Most in "civilized" countries find this shocking. That someone should suffer consequences, not to mention ruthless punishment, for presumably consensual sexual activity -- involving only "private" action that supposedly doesn't injure or impact anyone else -- seems ethically outrageous.

The same condemnation by modern sensibilities normally accompanies the discovery of the Levitical imperative, "If a man commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death" (Lev 20:10). Some ask, "How could a merciful God have allowed this?" if even for a time, not to mention commanded it.

Such a question, however, often betrays a lack of seriousness about the harm of sin in general and the damage of adultery in particular. How can we be soft with regard to what led to Jesus' crucifixion? How can we be indulgent with regard to the infidelity that ruptures a covenant of love with a spouse and with God and that severs so many families?

Today, 22 percent of American men and 14 percent of U.S. women admit in surveys they have engaged in extramarital affairs during their marriage, percentages that shame and fear likely deflate. Many more, who have not committed adultery in the flesh, cop to committing regularly what Jesus labeled "adultery in the heart" (Mt 5:28) through pornography use, frequently with similarly seismic results to their marriage and family.

That's why it's important for us to slow down and ponder why some societies have retained capital punishment for adultery and, more importantly, why God would have commanded it: it's so that people might learn the gravity of the sin by the severity of the penalty.

That gravity has never changed. Neither, in reality, has the punishment: there is still a death penalty, indeed an eternal one, associated with the sin of adultery, which is why we call such a sin "mortal." When committed with knowledge and deliberate consent, adulterers experience death in their soul, by choosing to cut themselves off from the Lord of life.

And as God has revealed to us through the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel, every serious sin is analogous to adultery, since it breaks the spousal covenant of love we have entered with God.

That makes Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in the very act of adultery highly personal for every one of us. It is a real life illustration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, starring someone living a dissolute life, several stone-carrying "older brothers," and God, who rather than condemn reconciles and restores.

Even though none of us, by God's mercy, has probably had our sins humiliatingly revealed before the crowds like a modern Hester Prynne, each of us has indeed "greatly sinned ... by [our] ... own most grievous fault" and constant public confession. We have caught ourselves red-handed in sins against love of God and found ourselves exposed before him.

Yet even though, with his sinless mother, he was the only one who fully merited to cast a stone, he rather took the stones, the nails, and punishment merited by us and suffered the death penalty so that we wouldn't have to.

The woman caught in adultery, without realizing it, was ultimately dragged not before a sympathetic arbiter whom her accusers were similarly trying to entrap, or a gallant rabbi who would sagaciously save her life, but before the loving spouse of her soul against whom she and her partner were cheating.

And he responded not with justified anger, or with cold justice, but as he promised he would through Hosea: not condemning her, not permitting her to die as her deeds deserved, but restoring her to the marital bond.

"Neither do I condemn you," he told her. "Go and sin no more."

Elsewhere in St. John's Gospel, Jesus underlined that he had come not to condemn but so that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17). He had come to forgive and fortify, to defend and deliver, to ransom and reunite. Out of love, he would hand himself over to death for his bride, to sanctify and cleanse her, so that she might no longer cavort with lusters but holy and without blemish live in faithful love (Eph 5:26-27).

And that's what Jesus seeks to do to each of us sinners who drag ourselves before him in the temple area.

Preaching on this scene nine years ago on the first Sunday of his papacy, Pope Francis declared, "God never tires of forgiving us. It's we who tire of asking for forgiveness." And he prayed, "May we never tire of asking for what he never tires to give."

The Divine Bridegroom indeed never ceases to love his bride with cleansing mercy, which he lavishly dispenses in the most precious one-on-one dialogue in life. He hopes that we will never cease to trust in that spousal love and its restorative power.

In the midst of a harsh world that seeks to accuse, summarily condemn, and kill, he wants to forgive, save and give life. In response to the eternal death penalty due to adultery, he seeks through mercy to give eternal life and bring us to the eternal nuptial banquet.

That makes his dismissal, "Go and sin no more," not just a summons to grateful love, but a motivation to try to "drag" before him as many as we can to receive the same life-giving fresh start.

- Father Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River who is national chaplain to Aid to the Church in Need USA, a Papal Missionary of Mercy and a Missionary of the Eucharist for the US Bishops.