This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year C. In yesterday’s post we left the scene with the scribes and Pharisee awaiting Jesus’ answer: “So what do you say?” When he heard what the teachers of the law said, Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. This action has been variously interpreted. Some say Jesus was embarrassed to be confronted by a promiscuous woman (unlikely); others, that it was a ploy to gain time to think how best to answer. Some suggest that he was writing the sins of the accusers, a tradition that goes back to St Jerome and which later appeared in 10th century Armenian gospel manuscript.
Again others have suggested it was a prophetic action modeled after Jeremiah 17:13. If his actions do echo Jer 17:13 (“Those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water,” perhaps “written in the earth” is the polar opposite of being written in the book of life (Ex 32:32; Dan 12:1). Another opinion is that writing was the opening part of Exodus 23:1b: “Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.” This was a reminder that the whole affair was unjust and it carried a warning lest innocent men contract guilt by association with evil witnesses.
But all this is speculation; we do not know what Jesus wrote. In any case, Jesus’ action was a sign of his refusal to debate the issue on the terms dictated by the teachers of the law and hence their persistent questioning. When the Pharisees and scribes kept on questioning him, Jesus straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus’ answer is intended for all the people present
According to the law, witnesses to a capital offense had to cast the first stone when the accused was condemned to death (Deut. 17:7). Jesus regarded the teachers of the law as witnesses to the offense. Therefore, they should begin the execution if it were to go ahead. But Jesus’ words challenged the accusers, implying that none of them was without sin and therefore they were in no position to condemn this woman. What sin Jesus was implying they were guilty of is not clear. Perhaps they too were guilty of adultery. Perhaps they were malicious witnesses in terms of Deuteronomy 19:15–21, because they were not interested in seeing justice done, but only in trapping Jesus. (note: the reference in Deuteronomy regards false witness; the question of motive is not mentioned). Having said this, again Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground. This is probably best understood as an indication that Jesus was refusing further debate. We are not told what Jesus actually wrote, so it is pointless to speculate. What he wrote plays no part in the story, because the teachers of the law, the crowd and the woman all responded to what Jesus said, not what he wrote.
An optimistic reading of Jesus’ call for the one without sin to cast the first stone is “all the people” have been turned away from their murderous intentions onto the path of life as the withdraw to reflect on their own sinfulness before God. It has often been suggested that the eldest accusers were the first to leave (v. 9) because they recognized their own sinfulness more readily. However, leaving in this order may simply reflect the custom of deferring to the elders. In any case, their withdrawal was in fact a recognition of sin. Those who came to condemn ended up condemning themselves by not casting a stone.
Jesus is left alone, sitting on the ground, bent over and writing, with the woman standing before him. As Augustine says, relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia (there stand the two alone, misery and mercy; John 33.5).