This is the third post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel according to St. John. You can find the first post here and the second post here.A sobbing woman is thrown down to the dusty ground by the Jewish legal elite in front of Jesus. She knows her fate is likely going to be death by stoning. “Teacher,” the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, “this woman was caught in adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
The suspense is palpable. Her fate is hanging in the balance. Instead of relieving the tension of the moment, Jesus prolongs it by bending down and writing in the dirt. The crowd cranes their necks trying to see what this enigmatic Rabbi is doing. Some begin to grow restless, prodding Jesus to respond with a judgment.
In response to the badgering of the crowd, Jesus stands up. Looking at the crowd, he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he bends down and begins writing in the dirt again.
Confused and ashamed, with their tales between their legs, the scribes and Pharisees begin to slink away from the scene. One by one, from eldest to youngest, they leave until the woman is alone with the doodling Jesus. Her temperament has evolved from hysterical to cautiously curious as she watches the Teacher drawing with his finger one the ground.
After what could only be described as a pregnant pause, Jesus stands up again and asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
Perhaps puzzled and confused, she looks around and responds, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus, with a glint of compassion in his eyes, tenderly releases her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
This brief, power-packed story is known in the academic literature as Pericope Adulterae. The preponderance of evidence points to the fact that it was not originally in the book of John. It isn’t in any of the original manuscripts. The Church Fathers do not offer any commentary on this story (and it doesn’t appear in any of the Eastern Church writings until around the 10th century). When it does appear in manuscripts, they mark it with asterisks as if to point out it may be out of place. In some manuscripts, it is placed in other parts of John or even in Luke. The language used in the story is out of place in John and may fit better with the Synoptic traditions, particularly St. Luke’s Gospel.
Despite its sketchy textual history, this story has been placed where it is for a reason. The Bible has been collected by the Church for the Church. It is part of the received traditions handed down by the Apostles. Canonical critic Brevard Childs explains the situation this way:
"In the fourth Gospel the reader is continually being instructed in the true significance of a statement of of an event, and thus put into a different position from the disciples from whom the mystery was still hidden. In this way the final redactional hand confirmed the explicit purpose of the author who wrote: 'these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name' (20:30)."
Since it has been added to Scripture, Christians should strive to understand it.
What this story conveys is a potent statement about grace in the midst of judgment. Jesus writing on the ground with his finger is important. Think about passages in the Old Testament that involve a finger writing. Perhaps the strangest and most memorable is the hand writing on the wall at King Belshazzar’s feast in Daniel 5. Another is Exodus 31:18 where Moses receives the Ten Commandments on stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God.
In John 7:53-8:11, Jesus is placed in this tradition because he also uses his finger to write. Except instead of his finger being used for judgment or legalism, he uses it to show mercy and grace. As Christians, we should be reminded of two important lessons from this story.
First, like the woman, we are all sinners who have been extended “grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16). The Church, as Abigail Van Buren once recognized, is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.Secondly, as recipients of this grace, we should be quick to follow Jesus’ examples and offer it to others. This is the lesson learned in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” By extending this to the world, we are embodying an Incarnational way of life. Are you extending this love to the people you encounter on a daily basis?