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Writing on the Ground

Posted on 07 Jul 2024

July 7, 2024

John 8:3-11

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman


So I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t show up in any of the children’s Bibles we own at church.

You might even wonder why this is someone’s favorite Bible story.  I mean there are no animals going two by two like in Noah’s Ark.  There is no bond of unconditional love like we will hear about next week with Ruth and Naomi.  This is no story of the hero overcoming all odds like with David defeating the giant Goliath.

It’s an important story for us to hear though as we follow Jesus Christ.  It’s a story that speaks right to the heart of who Jesus is and who Jesus calls us to be, and that is compassionate.  So it’s worth braving this uncomfortable story.

Uncomfortable, on the one hand, because while physical relationships are constantly on display in our world, most people are pretty uncomfortable talking about them.  And this isn’t even a story about healthy physical relationships.

That’s not the only thing that makes this story uncomfortable.  It’s also the human interactions.  The scribes and Pharisees treat the woman as if she is an object.  As if she is an object lesson, one being used to trap, trick, and discredit Jesus.

While the scribes and Pharisees call Jesus “teacher” – the only time this word is used in the entire gospel of John – they don’t call him teacher as a sign of respect.  Instead, they use it to mock Jesus’ teaching.

With self-righteousness and judgment in their minds and hearts, the scribes and Pharisees mistreat the woman; mistreat Jesus; and even mistreat the law of Moses, using their faith as a weapon.

They are absolutely correct that in Leviticus and again in Deuteronomy, the law, handed down by God through Moses to God’s people, does indeed say that a woman caught in adultery shall be put to death, that’s not the whole of it.  In Leviticus 20:10, it actually says “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.”

I don’t recommend it as fun reading; however Leviticus continues with a whole list of laws directed at men about who they can’t have physical relationships with.  And it did not escape my notice as I read this exhaustive list of prohibitions, that at least King David, if not plenty of others, suffered no consequences from breaking these laws of Moses.

So if Leviticus and Deuteronomy both say, “both the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.” then the question is…where is the man?  Where is the man caught with her?  And more so, where are the witnesses?  If this woman is to be stoned for breaking the law, where is the process of justice?

And that’s the point.  The scribes and the Pharisees don’t really care about justice and the law. They are using the law just like they are using the woman – as a way to challenge Jesus, as a weapon to trick, trip him up, and discredit him.

The whole situation is a travesty – as the scribes and Pharisees misuse the law, the woman, Jesus, and the faith of their people.  And this sort of behavior, this trickery and gross unkindness, can make even the most serene of us angry.  We see their behavior and think, ‘How could they?  How dare they?  What kind of people would actually do that?’  And we end up in the same place as the scribes and Pharisees, judging others because they were judgy.

It becomes an endless cycle of self-righteousness and judgment.  An endless cycle that doesn’t leave anyone feeling good.  Anger, the cousin of self-righteousness and judgment – rarely, never?,heals.  It just burns little holes in our souls.

And yet, it is so very hard to escape the cycle and trap of judgment and self-righteousness.  It is so tempting to see someone’s unkind, judgy behavior and say ‘How could they?  How dare they? What kind of person would actually do that?’ and become unkind and judgy ourselves.

I wonder if Jesus was tempted to think this way.  I wonder if Jesus got upset with the scribes and Pharisees at how they treated the woman.  I wonder if Jesus was offended with how they mocked him.  I wonder if Jesus got angry at how they twisted God’s ways, taking laws that were supposed to set God’s people apart as different and special, and used those laws to behave like every other people on earth.

I wonder if this interaction left Jesus thinking some pretty super judgy mcjudgy thoughts about the scribes and Pharisees.  Thoughts like ‘Unbelievable, they are supposed to be so learned and they just don’t get it.” Or “Really? True observers of the faith, my foot.  Pick and choosers of the faith is more like it.”

We don’t know if Jesus was having any judgy mcjudgy thoughts as the scribes and Pharisees pushed this wrong doing woman in front of them.  We don’t know if he was angry or sad or frustrated as they mocked him and showed their ignorance of the heart of God’s law.  We will never know what Jesus was thinking or feeling because all scripture tells us is that Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.

Jesus’ non verbal response sent a very clear message to the scribes and Pharisess.  A commentary I read on this passage says, “In the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time, such an act of writing would have been recognized as an act of refusal and disengagement.” (NIB, vol. IX pg 629)  Writing on the ground would have clearly said ‘I won’t engage.  I won’t get into this power struggle, trading you judgment for judgment, meeting self-righteousness with more self-righteousness.’

I believe that as he was writing on the ground, Jesus was grounding himself in God: grounding himself in God’s peace, grounding himself in God’s love, grounding himself in God’s compassion.  And teaching us, ‘Slow down.  Don’t jump into the cycle.  Think through our response.  Choose compassion.  Break the cycle of judgment.’

Because that is the greater message to this important story.  Yes, we are called to lives of compassion.  More importantly, we are called to new life in Jesus Christ.

After Jesus invites “anyone among [them] who is without sin [to] be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), he writes on the ground again.  He doesn’t stand there and stare the scribes and Pharisees down.  He doesn’t challenge them back.  His disengages and gives them space to disengage, space to change, space to choose new life.

Jesus has compassion for the woman and for the scribes and Pharisees, too.  In different ways, Jesus gives both the woman and the scribes and Pharisees the opportunity to reconsider and to turn to a new way of life.

There is a lot of good stuff in this uncomfortable Bible story: the reminder to embrace compassion instead of judgment; good tips for breaking the cycle of self-righteousness and judgment, and most importantly, as we follow Jesus Christ, the reminder that even when we do choose judgment instead of kindness; even when we fall into the vicious trap of self-righteousness and judgment, Jesus loves us.  Jesus gives us space to turn back around and begin anew.  May God’s amazing grace become the word made flesh in us as we continue to grow in Jesus’ love.  Amen.