In today’s gospel, Jesus arrives in the temple area to teach, when some Pharisees and scribes bring in a woman caught in adultery. They make her stand in the middle and ask Jesus’ verdict on her. They remind him that the law of Moses prescribes nothing less than death by stoning. The gospel notes that their motive is “to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” As in previous attempts, their question is meant to put Jesus in an air-tight dilemma of self-condemnation. To pardon the woman (and be consistent with his message of mercy) would be to go against the law of Moses, while to send her to death would be to violate the Roman law which forbids killing by private citizens.
The insensitivity of the religious leaders in dragging the unfortunate woman and turning her into a public spectacle is utterly appalling. They attest that “she was caught in the very act of committing adultery.” How long then have these voyeurs been watching to catch her in the act? And if it was an adulterous act, where is the man? Even now, such arrogant machismo still thrives in our sexist society. But what makes their action doubly malicious is their ultimate objective to entrap Jesus at the expense of the hapless woman whom they unscrupulously exploit and instrumentalize for their evil intent.
Jesus bends down and begins to write on the ground. After a little while, he straightens up and tells the people, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he bends down and continues to write. One by one, the crowd disperses beginning with the eldest until no one is left, except Jesus and the woman. What is happening here?
The story begins with the woman who is made to stand in the center of the crowd and is accused of a crime deserving of death. In truth, however, it is Jesus who is the center of the story and the main target of condemnation. Using the woman as a prop, the hypocritical elders pretend to entrust Jesus with the judgement of the case.
And Jesus obliges. He bends and writes on the ground with his finger, a gesture which alludes to himself as the divine legislator. (Remember how in Sinai God wrote the law on tablets of stone with his finger?) Then rising from the ground, Jesus delivers his verdict, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” His is a verdict that condemns neither the woman, nor her accusers, nor anyone in the crowd, but summons everyone to confront the truth about himself.
Jesus leads the crowd to the awareness of their common and identical condition – that all are sinners. What starts as an exposure of an individual’s sin ends in an exposure of everyone’s sinfulness. But Jesus does not stop there. He brings them all to repentance: the woman to “sin no more” and the community to abandon their determination to condemn.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?… Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He, who alone has no sin, does not condemn for he is the divine lawmaker, and his law is the law of love.
In his book, “A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World,” Ron Lee Davis tells the true story of a pastor who was well-loved by his congregation, but personally haunted by a secret sin he committed in his youth. When a parishioner, renowned for her virtuous life, claimed to receive visions and messages from Jesus, the priest tested her. He told the woman to ask the Lord what sin he had committed when he was in high school. When they finally met again, the priest asked, “Well, what did the Lord say?” The parishioner smiled and replied, “Jesus said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
What did Jesus write on the ground? The gospel does not tell. Some speculate that he might have written the sins of each of those around him. We really don’t know. But whatever it was he wrote, he made sure that it was written on dust, so it would not last.*