"He began to write on the ground with his finger."
Is 43: 16-21
Ph 3: 8-14
Jn 8: 1-11
What was Jesus writing on the ground? Along with what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, is there life as we know it on other planets, or how were the pyramids built, this age old question from today’s Gospel remains a quandary. Why didn’t John tell us in his Gospel story?
Many theories have been proposed about what Jesus wrote. Various opinions from nothing in particular, he was just doodling, to the sins of the condemning Pharisees. One thing is certain - the woman was guilty of the accusation: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery . . .” (Jn 8: 4). And besides, where was her partner?
We may assume the nameless woman (Mary Magdalene?) likely knew of Jesus’ reputation. But even if she didn’t, the Pharisees and the crowd gathered around certainly did. He was teaching in the Temple and when hearing of it, great mobs rushed to listen to him. If anyone could have condemned the woman it would have been Jesus, the one without sin. So, the scene is dramatic to say the least.
While the Pharisees brought the woman, now totally humiliated as she stands in “the middle,” it is Jesus who is really on trial here. “So, what do you say?” (Jn 8: 5) question the Pharisees. Will he follow the Law of Moses or break with tradition and reinforce their image that Jesus’ is a dangerous maverick? The Pharisees attempt to back him into a corner. Yet, Jesus proposes something new.
In our first reading from Isaiah we hear of something new. Isaiah paints the picture of a new Exodus: “. . . I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you know perceive it? . . .” (Ex 43: 18).
The “something new” seems to be a new perception of our relationship with God. Humankind is called into covenant with a God who has protected and preserved them throughout their desert journey. Into a land parched and dry, according to Isaiah today the chosen people will find rivers and water clean enough to produce abundant life and to drink. God’s mercy will be abundant.
So, in the Gospel of the adulterous woman, Jesus offers a second chance towards a new life and invites her to consider a new direction. Through the power of love and forgiveness there is no self-righteous condemnation or the slavish following of an unjust law. There is dignity and mercy. There is compassion for the sinner.
Remember last week’s story of the Prodigal Son? To that younger son, the rebellious selfish younger child, there is a father waiting with open arms because the son has found his way back home. In a sense, he came back on target.
Clearly this Gospel is a set-up. Through a silent and dramatic move as he wrote something on the ground and through words that turned the shame on the women’s accusers – “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn 8: 7), Jesus silences the charges.
Off they go and Jesus is left alone with the guilty party. Yet, back to what he was writing on the ground. My vote is for nothing in particular. I think he used it as a diversion to turn the attention of the crowd away from the woman on to himself. To see Jesus as that new beginning which Exodus alludes. Now that Jesus had their attention, they could not help but look at themselves.
Once they saw themselves in light of Jesus’ words, “throw that stone if you are without sin,” no one would dare follow through. No longer did they see her – now they could only see their own guilt. What do I see in myself when I really listen to or when I seriously contemplate the words of Christ calling me away from sin? Drop those stones!
Now that all were gone, Jesus could straighten up and turn his attention to the woman – and she to him. Jesus stands, which implies the woman was before him (wouldn’t you love to see the expression on her face) and asks her: “Has no one condemned you?” (Jn 8: 10). Wait, here it comes – the one without sin says to her . . .”Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin any more.” (Jn 8: 11). I here imagine an expression of first relief, then overwhelming gratitude upon the face of someone touched to the deepest region of their soul. The woman has gone, not unlike the wayward son in Luke 15, from death to life.
Remember the Father rushing to his son out in the field when he saw him from a distance? He ran to him not to teach him a lesson but to embrace him with love and dignity; to offer him a second chance, hoping that this time he will hit the mark.
Such an image of what God is like and how he treats the sinner should bring joy to all of our hearts. Not any one of us can throw a stone. In the gift of reconciliation we rise to new life. In the sacrament of the same name we meet the Lord who did not condemn.
Yet, let’s not forget that part of reconciliation is also responsibility. The father waited for his son to come to his senses (Lk 15: 21). He didn’t go in search of him but when he did come home he was greeted with mercy and love. Jesus’ told the woman: “. . .do not sin any more.”
A wonderful explanation I once heard of the word “sin” that Jesus uses here is more correctly a word that refers to archery or spear throwing at a target. Aim that arrow correctly, throw that spear more precisely and this time hit the bulls eye on the target before you. Don’t miss the mark again!
Jesus shows us the way to aim – the precise target in front of us that should guide our direction. Do not sin any more may well be translated, “next time aim more precisely and hit the mark.”
Our Eucharist brings us front and center with the living Christ who always aimed high and invites into the same competition for holiness. We have a God who is loving and patient – the best of instructors so let us learn from the master himself as Lent comes to its close in just two weeks.
By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God,
may we walk eagerly in that same charity
with which, out of love for the world,
your Son handed himself over to death.
(Collect for 5th Sunday of Lent)