“At daybreak, He reappeared in the temple area” (Jn 8:2). These words open today’s Gospel, John 8:1-11). St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “The fact that He returned early in the morning signifies the rising light of new grace” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1120).
Jesus sits down to teach the people: “When the people started coming to Him, He sat down and began to each them” (Jn 8:2). Thomas reflects: “Their teacher is presented as seated, and sitting down, that is, going down to their level, so that His teaching would be more easily understood. His sitting down signifies the humility of His incarnation … Because it was through the human nature that our Lord assumed that He became visible, we began to be instructed in the divine matters more easily… sitting down, He taught them, that is, the simple, and those who respected His teaching (Commentary on John, 1122).
The scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who has been caught in adultery. They ask Jesus what should be done because Moses said that adulterers should be stoned (Lv 20:10; Dt 22:21). Actually, they are trying to catch Him, as John informs us “They were posing this question to trap Him, so that they could have something to accuse Him of” (Jn 8:6).
Thomas comments on the dilemma set before Jesus: “He showed His gentleness as a liberator or savior; and they saw this when He could not be provoked against His enemies and persecutors … they wanted to test Him, to see if He would abandon justice for the sake of mercy” (Commentary on John, 1125).
Other New Testament passages recall Jesus’ patience: “When He was reviled, He did not revile” (1 Pet 2:23); “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29).
Pretending to be in good faith, they ask Jesus, “What do you say about her? (Jn 8:6). If Jesus answered with mercy, he would be going against the Law. As Thomas notes, “Their question is a trap.”
Thomas marvels how Jesus balanced His answer: “Jesus kept to what was just; and He did not abandon mercy” (Commentary on John, 1130).
John tells us: “Jesus bending down wrote on the ground with his finger” (Jn 8:6). Thomas relates Jesus’ physical bending down with Jesus’ humbling Himself in the Incarnation: “Jesus was bending down, by the mystery of the Incarnation, by means of which He performed miracles in the flesh He had assumed… He wrote on the earth because the Old Law was written on tablets of stone (Ex 31; 2 Cor 3), which signify its harshness … But the earth is soft. And so Jesus wrote on the earth to show the sweetness and the softness of the New Law that He gave to us” (Commentary on John, 1130).
Thomas finds Jesus’ approach to be an example of fair judgment: “There should be kindness in condescending to those to be punished; Jesus was bending down: ‘There is judgment without mercy to him who does not have mercy’ (Jas 2:13); ‘If a man is overtaken in any fault, you who are spiritual instruct him in a spirit of mildness’ (Gal 6:1). Secondly, there should be discretion in determining the judgment and so Jesus wrote with His finger, which because of its flexibility signifies discretion” (Commentary on John, 1131).
Jesus simply announced: “Whoever among you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Thomas reflects: “He is saying in effect: Let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners; let the Law be accomplished, but not by those who break it, because ‘When you judge another you condemn yourself’ (Rom 2:1) (Commentary on John, 1133).
Jesus bent down again (Jn 8:8). Thomas thinks that He did this, “… out of consideration for their embarrassment, to give them complete freedom to leave” (Commentary on John, 1134).
John tells us, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him” (Jn 8:9). Thomas comments: “There remained only Jesus and the woman standing there, that is, mercy and misery (This expression is from Jerome, misericordia et miseria)” (Commentary on John, 1135).
Thomas observes: “Jesus alone remained because He alone was without sin; So perhaps this woman was afraid, and thought she would be punished by Him … Jesus did not abandon mercy, but gave a merciful sentence” (Commentary on John, 1136).
“Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you” (Jn 8:10-11).
Thomas reflects that Jesus did no condemn her because He was without sin: “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him’ (Jn 3:17).” God told the prophet Ezekiel: “I do not desire the death of the sinner” (Ez 18:23).
Thomas notices that Jesus forgave without imposing a penance, “… since He made her inwardly just by outwardly forgiving her, He was well able to change her so much within by sufficient sorrow for her sins that she would be made free from any penance” (Commentary on John, 1138).
Jesus cautioned her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). Thomas points out that Jesus distinguishes between the woman’s nature and her sin: “Our Lord could have condemned both. For example, He could have condemned her nature if He had ordered them to stone her, and He could have condemned her sin if He had not forgiven her. He was also able to absolve each. For example, if He had given her license to sin, saying: ‘Go, live as you wish, and put your hope in My freeing you. No matter how much you sin, I will free you even from Gehenna and from the tortures of hell.’ But our Lord does not love sin, and does not favor wrongdoing, and so He condemned her sin but not her nature, saying, Go, and do not sin again. We see here how kind our Lord is” (Commentary on John, 1139).
The story doesn’t end there. the woman had to go on with her life. If she was married, she had to come to terms with her husband. People would whisper about her as she went to the market, “There is the woman.” The Pharisees would resent her because Jesus spared her by His kindness. In each one of these situations, she would have to look back to the face of Jesus and remember His words, “I do not condemn you.”
The people who wanted to stone the women justified themselves by their religious actions but, at the same time, hid their own misdeeds, perhaps even from themselves.
No one appreciated our need to continuously experience Jesus’ mercy than did Paul, as we see in today’s second reading, Philippians 3:8-14. Paul had been a very observant religious person but he came to realize that even religious actions can cover our deeper need for forgiveness, as he writes: “I count everything else as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ and found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own based on the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” (Phil 3:8-9).
Paul had elsewhere declared: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The Letter to the Colossians declares that in Christ, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
Paul seeks only, “that I may gain Christ,” which Thomas reflects means to “ obtain Him and be united to Him by charity.”
Thomas questions why Paul could have once thought that he had “his own righteousness.” Thomas thinks that this is the difference between the old and new law: “But if your righteousness is your own, how is it from the Law? I answer that it is indeed mine, because I accomplish such works with human power without the inward vesture of sanctifying grace … ” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians).
Paul may have sought to observe the Law by his own efforts. Yet, as Thomas explains, the gift of being right before God “ … is not obtained except by faith in Christ: ‘Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1); ‘The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe’” (Rom. 3:22) (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas insists that it is God who justifies: “For the author is God and not man: ‘It is God who justifies’ (Rom. 8:33); ‘And to one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness’ (Rom. 4:5). Therefore he says, the righteousness from God that depends on faith: ‘The Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him’ (Acts 5:32). The fruit is knowledge of Him and the power of His resurrection and to be in the company of His saints” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas explains that there are two ways of knowing God. The first is to know “about Him … His person, namely, that He is true God and true man … Secondly, the glory of His resurrection; and the power of His resurrection … Thirdly, how to imitate Him, when he says, and may share His sufferings, namely, be associated with Him in His passion: ‘Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps’ (1 Pet. 2:21) (Commentary on Philippians).
The other way of knowing is “ by practical knowledge,” which, Thomas asserts begins with knowing about God but moves on to “know God” and to know the power of the Resurrection not only in our souls but also in our bodies and to appreciate the value of being associated with Jesus’ sufferings
Paul acknowledges that he has not obtained this complete union with Jesus yet: “Not that I have already obtained this nor am already perfect but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Phil 3:12).
Thomas comments on how our perfection is found in striving: “For man’s perfection consists in adhering to God through charity, because a thing is perfect to the degree it adheres to its perfection. But the soul can adhere to God in two ways: in one way, perfectly, so that a person actually refers his actions to God and knows Him as He can be known; and this is in heaven” (Commentary on Philippians).
We also may find our perfection by adhering to God: “But adherence in this life is of two kinds: one is necessary for salvation, and all are bound to it, namely, that a person in no case place his heart in anything against God, and that he habitually refer his whole life to Him. The Lord says of this way: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Matt. 22:37) (Commentary on Philippians).
Even in this life, a deeper adherence is possible: “The other is of supererogation, when a person adheres to God above the common way. This is done when he removes his heart from temporal things, the better to approach heaven, because the smaller covetousness becomes, the more charity grows…” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas comments: “Then when he says, but I press on, he shows his efforts toward it, saying, I press on, namely, after Christ” (Commentary on Philippians).
Jesus declared: “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12) and in (10:27): “My sheep hear my voice… and they follow Me.” And this, to make it My own [to comprehend Him]: “So run that you may obtain the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24).
Thomas explains that Paul means to “comprehend” God, he means “to attain and hold.” We do not know God “to the degree that He is knowable and loveable” “God, however, is infinite light and truth, whereas our light is finite. Hence he says, but I press on to make it my own, that is, to comprehend Him in the second way, i.e., by attaining: ‘I held him, and would not let him go’ (Cant. 3:4), because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas reflects: “He says: I do not consider that I have made it my own. As if to say: I am not so vain as to attribute to myself something I do not yet have; but I press on toward the goal … one thing I do, namely, forgetting what lies behind… I press on toward the goal. I do not consider that I have made it my own, but I press on toward one thing, namely, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas comments on Paul’s desire to strain forward: “He shows what his destination is, namely, straining forward to what lies ahead, i.e., which pertains to faith in Christ or greater merits or heavenly things: ‘They go from strength to strength’ (Ps. 84:5). He says straining forward, because a person who wishes to take anything must exert himself as much as he can. But the heart should stretch itself by desire: ‘The desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom’ (Wis. 6:20). For the prize, which is the reward only of those who run: ‘In a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize’ (1 Cor. 9:24); to this prize destined for me by God, namely, of the upward call of God: ‘Those whom he predestined he also called’ (Rom. 8:30), and this in Christ Jesus, i.e., by faith in Christ because of His gentleness, and how just He is because of His truth” (Commentary on Philippians).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on John and his Commentary of the Letter to the Philippians may be found on the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/