2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
John 8: 2-11 (NIV)
(For use with the MORNING Daily Prayer)
In an age of Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, we are used to sending short messages to each other to let our friends and acquaintances know how our day is going, what we’re eating, and how cute our kids are. Sometimes we write rants against the actions of people or societies.
In this passage from John, Jesus’ “posts” were not on an iPad or laptop. They were in the dust at his feet as the scribes and Pharisees accused a woman of adultery. Their accusation was made, as often was the case, to trick Jesus into condemning himself; the proverbial lose-lose situation. If Jesus said they should stone the woman, he would be in danger of arrest by the Roman authorities, who did not permit this. If he absolved the woman of her guilt, he would be accused of breaking the Law of Moses, as written in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22. Funny thing about that law, though. It clearly states that both the man and the woman involved in the adultery should be put to death. We don’t hear that the man is present, so really, the Pharisees and scribes are themselves breaking the law.
Then Jesus bent down and wrote something in the dust. Was it, as many believe, a list of the names of his accusers, the names of those who have sinned against God and humankind? We don’t know, but he then stood up and said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and he stooped to write some more. After that, the accusers went away, one by one, leaving Jesus and the woman alone.
I think Jesus had compassion for both the woman and the religious leaders. The woman lived in a culture where women were not allowed to be educated, where they were often married off to older relatives at the age of 12 or 13, where they were not valued for anything except cooking, cleaning, and child-bearing. Was this adultery a means to escape a husband who beat her, or a way of asserting some level of her personhood? The scribes and Pharisees, too, may evoke compassion when we think that they had been raised since early childhood to follow the letter of the law vigorously and without question, like children today who from a young age hear only racist or sexist rhetoric. It is not until that deeply ingrained hatred is challenged, might they stop and really think about what it means and how it hurts others.
In thinking about Jesus’ life and ministry as a whole, I’d like to imagine that rather than judging the woman or her accusers, Jesus might instead have bent down to the ground and written something like, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And that’s what made the condemners walk away, and what gave the woman hope.
What words would you like to imagine Jesus writing in the dust to the religious leaders? What words would have meaning for the woman and/or the leaders? What words would you want written to you, to give you hope and peace in waiting for the coming of the Messiah? Maybe those are the words of encouragement that we should be posting!
A Prayer for the Tenth Day of Advent
God of love and mercy, we are so thankful that we can come to you with our failures and you love us anyway. For we know that you did not send your son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. Help us to extend that compassion to everyone we meet, even those who seem most unlovable, so that, through you, we may work toward a more just and loving world as we await your coming again.
Director of Program Development,
The Leadership Institute