Document: Letter 26
Date: c. 388
Addressee: Iranaeus
English Translation: FC 26.468-474
Summary of Contents: On the use of capital punishment

Although in a previous letter I have already disposed of the little question you proposed, I will not refuse your request, my son, to set forth and develop my meaning at greater length.

Numerous times the question has been raised, and well known, too, is the acquittal of the woman who in the Gospel according to John was brought to Christ, accused of adultery. The Jews had devised this stratagem so that, in case she was set free contrary to the Law, the sentence of the Lord Jesus might be charged with being contrary to the Law, but, if she were condemned according to the Law, the grace of Christ might seem void.

The question became more pressing after bishops began accusing criminals before public tribunals, some urging the sword and the death penalty, while other approved accusations of this sort and the bloody triumphs of bishops. What do these say except what the Jews said, namely, that the guilty should be punished by the laws of the state and those should be accused by bishops in state courts whom they say should have been punished by law? The case is the same, although the number is less, that is, the case of judgment is the same, but the odium of the penalty is not the same. Christ would not allow one woman to be punished according to the Law; these declare that too small a number has been punished.

But, where did Christ pass this judgment? He generally thought fit to shape His discourse in accordance with the characteristics of the place where He was teaching His disciples. For example, while walking in the porch of Solomon, that is, of the wise man, He said: I and the Father are one. And when He was in the Temple of God He said: “My teaching is not my own, but his who sent me.” While He stood in the Temple, too, He gave the sentence of which we are speaking, for in the following verses you have: “Jesus spoke these words in the treasury while teaching in the Temple. And no one seized Him.” What is the treasury? The contribution of the faithful, the bank of the poor, the refuge of the needy, and Christ sat near this and, according to Luke, gave the opinion that the two mites of the widow were preferable to the gifts of the rich, preferring on God’s word love joined with zeal and generosity rather than the lavish gifts of munificence.

Let us see what comparison He made when He passed such judgment there near the treasury, for with good reason He preferred the widow who contributed the two mites. That precious poverty of hers was rich in the mystery of faith. So are the two coins which the Samaritan of the Gospels left at the inn to care for the wounds of the man who had fallen among robbers. The widow mystically representing the Church thought it right to put into the sacred treasury the gift with which the wounds of the poor are healed and the hunger of wayfarers is satisfied.

Therefore, what Christ now bestows you must spend spiritually. He gave to the people the silver of heavenly eloquence tried by fire and to satisfy the desires of the people He marked the coin with the royal image. No one contributed more than He who gave all. He filled the hungry, supplied the needy, gave light to the blind; He ransomed the captives, He made the paralytic rise, He gave life to the dead; and, what is more, He brought pardon to sinners and forgave their sins. These are the two coins which the Church has contributed after having received them from Christ. What are the two coins but the price of the New and Old Testament? The price of Scripture is our faith, for we value what we read in proportion to our will and intellect. Remission of sins, then, is the price of each Testament and is announced in type by the lamb and fulfilled in reality by Christ.

Understand, then, that there was no purification of seven days without the purification of three days. The purification of seven days is according to the Law which foretold under the appearance of the present Sabbath a spiritual Sabbath. The purification of three days is according to grace which is sealed by the witness of the Gospel, because the Lord arose on the third day. Where punishment for sins is prescribed there ought to be penance; where remission is given to sinners there also is grace. Penance precedes; grace follows. There is neither penance without grace nor grace without penance, for penance should first condemn the sin so that grace can do away with it. John fulfilled the type of the Law and baptized to penance; Christ, to grace.

The seventh day symbolizes the mystery of the Law, the eighth that of the resurrection, as you have in Ecclesiastes: “Give a portion to those seven and to the eight.” And in the prophet Osee you read that it was said to him: “Get an adulteress for fifteen denarii,” so that by the twofold price of the Old and New Testament, that is, by the full price of faith, he procures the woman who is attended by a wandering and adulterous crowd of heathen strangers.

“And I bought her for an omer of barley, and half an omer of barley and a measure of wine.” By barley is meant that he has called the imperfect to faith, to make them perfect; by the omer is understood a full measure, by the half-omer a half-measure. The full measure is in the Gospel; the halfmeasure is in the Law whose fulfillment is the New Testament. Indeed, the Lord Himself said: “I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.”

We read the significant words in the Psalms of David regarding the fifteen degrees and that the sun had arisen fifteen steps when Ezekias, the just king, received additional years to his life. The Sun of Justice is represented about to come to illumine with the light of His presence the fifteen steps of the Old and New Testament by which our faith mounts up to eternal life. I believe that today’s reading in the Apostle is a mystery, the fact that he [Paul] stayed fifteen days with Peter. It seems to me that, while the holy Apostles talked with one another about the interpretation of holy Scripture, the brilliance of the full light shone upon them and the shades of ignorance were dispersed. But let us go on to discuss the forgiveness of the woman charged with adultery.

A woman guilty of adultery was brought by the Scribes and Pharisees to the Lord Jesus and the malicious charge was laid on her so that if He forgave her He might seem to destroy the Law, but if He condemned her He would seem to have changed the purpose for which He had come, for He had come to forgive the sins of all men. He said earlier: “I judge no one.” Presenting her, they said: “We have found this woman openly in adultery. And in the Law Moses commanded every adulterer to be stoned. What then do you say about her?”

While they were saying this, Jesus, bending His head, wrote with His finger on the ground. And when they waited to hear Him, He raised His head and said: “Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” Is anything so godlike as that sentence that he should punish sin who himself is free from sin? For, how could we tolerate a person who condemned another for his sin and excused his own evil deeds? Does he not prove that he is more guilty by condemning in another what he himself commits?

He spoke these words and wrote on the ground. Why? As if He said: “You see the speck which is in your brother’s eye, but you do not see the beam which is in your eye.” Lust is like a speck, quickly enkindled, speedily consumed. The sacrilegious effrontery with which the Jews refused to acknowledge the Author of their salvation indicates the greatness of their crimes.

He wrote on the ground with the finger with which He had written the Law. Sinners are written on the ground, the just in heaven, as you have it said to the disciples: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” But He wrote a second time, so that you may know that the Jews were condemned by both Testaments.

When they heard these words they went out, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and they sat down thinking about themselves. And Jesus remained alone and the woman standing in the midst. It is well said that they went out, for they did not wish to be with Christ. The letter is outside; the mysteries, within. In the divine teachings they wanted, as it were, the leaves of the tree and not its fruit, and they lived in the shadow of the Law and were unable to see the Sun of Justice.

When they had gone, Jesus remained alone and the woman standing in the midst. Jesus who was about to forgive sin remains alone, as He Himself says: “Behold the hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each one to his own house, and to leave me alone,” because no herald or messenger, but the Lord Himself, saved His people. He remains alone because no one can share with Christ the task of forgiving sins. This is the task of Christ alone who took away the sin of the world. The woman deserved to be forgiven, since she remained alone with Jesus when the Jews withdrew.

Then Jesus, raising His head, said to the woman: “Where are they who accused you? Has no one stoned you?: And she answered, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her: “Neither will I condemn you. Go your way and now see that you sin no more.” See, reader, the divine mystery and the mercy of Christ. When the woman is accused, Christ bows His head, but He raises it when an accuser is no longer there. Thus, He wishes no one to be condemned, but all to be forgiven.

By saying “Has no one stoned you?” He quickly destroys all the quibbling of the heretics. They say that Christ does not know the day of judgment because He said: “As for sitting at my right hand and at my left, that is not mine to give you.” But see, He also says here: “Has no one stoned you?” How is it that He asks about what He saw? He is putting the question for our advantage that we may know that she was not stoned. Besides, it is a custom of man’s nature that we often question what we see. And the woman answered: “No one, Lord.” In other words, she said: “Who can stone a woman whom You Yourself do not condemn? Who can punish another under such conditions?”

The Lord answered her: “Neither will I condemn you.” Notice how He softened His judgments, so that the Jews might not be able to accuse Him of forgiving the woman, but, rather, turn the insult against themselves if they had a mind to complain. The woman is sent away; she is not forgiven. Inasmuch as no accuser was at hand, her innocence was not for this reason proven. Why should they complain, since they were the first to discontinue the charge and fail to exact the penalty?

He adds these words to the one gone astray: “Go, and see now that you sin no more.” He reformed the guilty one; He did not forgive the crime. A person receives a heavier penalty when he hates his fault and begins to condemn sin in himself. When a guilty man is put to death, the person rather than the fault is punished, But, when the fault is forsaken, the forgiveness of the person is the punishment of the sin. What do those words mean: “Go, and now see that you sin no more”? It is this: Since Christ has redeemed you, let grace correct you, for a penalty would not reform you, but only punish you.

Farewell, son, and as a son love us, because we love you as a father.

Translation from FC 26.468-474, adapted by SMT

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