Thoughts from the Early Church

Commentary by Augustine of Hippo

Let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone.

“The scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman who had been caught committing adultery.” Now the penalty of the law for adultery was stoning.
It was, of course, unthinkable that any of the prescriptions of the law could be unjust, so it followed that anyone whose teaching contravened what the law required would lay himself open to the charge of advocating injustice. The Lord’s enemies accordingly said to themselves:

He has a reputation for truth and is regarded as a man of great kindness and forbearance, so we must find a pretext for accusing him on the grounds of injustice. Let us confront him with a woman caught committing adultery, and quote the ruling of the law in her regard. 

If he orders her to be stoned, he will lose his name for clemency; if he tells us to release her, he will not be upholding justice. There is little doubt that he will say she must be freed, in order not to lose the reputation which has made him so popular. That will be our chance to incriminate him and find him guilty of an offense against the law.

We shall be able to say: ‘You are an enemy of the law! Your answer is not merely an attack on Moses but on God who gave the law to Moses. You have made yourself liable to the death penalty. You and the woman should both be stoned.’

By voicing such opinions the Lord’s enemies might be able to inflame popular feeling against him; they might incite the crowds to denounce him and demand his condemnation.

But look at the way our Lord’s answer upheld justice without forgoing clemency. He was not caught in the snare his enemies had laid for him; it is they themselves who were caught in it.

He did not say the woman should not be stoned, for then it would look as though he were opposing the law. But he had no intention of saying: “Let her be stoned,” because he came not to destroy those he found but to seek those who were lost.

Mark his reply. It contains justice, clemency, and truth in full measure. “Let the one among you who has never sinned be the first to throw a stone at her.” Let the sinner be punished, yes—but not by sinners. Let the law be carried out, but not by lawbreakers.

This, unquestionably, is the voice of justice, justice that pierced those men like a javelin. Looking into themselves, they realized their guilt, and one by one they all went out.

Two remained behind: the miserable woman, and Mercy. The Lord raised his eyes, and with a gentle look he asked her: “Has no one condemned you?” She replied: “No one, sir.” And he said: “Neither will I condemn you.”

What is this Lord? Are you giving approval to immorality? Not at all. Take note of what follows: “Go and sin no more.”

You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people.

One who approved of immorality would have said, “Neither will I condemn you. Go and live as you please; you can be sure that I will acquit you. However much you sin, I will release you from all penalty, and from the tortures of hell and the underworld.”

He did not say that. He said: “Neither will I condemn you; you need have no fear of the past, but beware of what you do in the future. Neither will I condemn you: I have blotted out what you have done; now observe what I have commanded, in order to obtain what I have promised.”

(Homilies on the Gospel of John 33, 4-6. 8: CCL 36, 307-310)

Augustine (354-430) was born at Thagaste in Africa and received a Christian education, although he was not baptized until 387. In 391 he was ordained priest and in 395 he became coadjutor bishop to Valerius of Hippo, whom he succeeded in 396. Augustine’s theology was formulated in the course of his struggle with three heresies: Manicheism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. His writings are voluminous and his influence on subsequent theology immense. He molded the thought of the Middle Ages down to the thirteenth century. Yet he was above all a pastor and a great spiritual writer.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson