Monday, November 18, 2019

Jesus Wrote With His Finger on the Ground

Sermon delivered November 17, 2019, at St. Pauls' Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rye Brook, N.Y.
“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:6b-8)
The Jesuits have a wonderful suggestion: when you read a vivid story like this, imagine yourself in the midst of the drama. This brings much-read scripture to life, and most find it to be a profound spiritual exercise. Where would you imagine yourself? 
Are you among those at the temple sitting at the feet of Jesus as he taught? 

Are you an innocent bystander trying to avoid an angry crowd carrying stones? 
Are you carrying a stone while shaking your fist in righteous indignation? 
Or are you the flustered man who committed the act of adultery with the woman and is now slinking into the crowd, trying desperately to be invisible?
And what is Jesus doing in your imagination? Is he exasperated when a crowd of Pharisaical bullies with rocks interrupts his teaching?  Or does he turn toward them with quiet patience? 
And the woman? Is she glaring defiantly at this meshuga mob? Or is she terrified, standing behind Jesus and begging for his protection?
And the greatest mystery of all: what is Jesus writing in the sand with his finger?
These discrete eleven verses in John present a dramatic episode in the life of Jesus. There is real drama here because Jesus knows whatever he says next could lead to a hideous death for a sinning woman. Our imaginations, curated by years of television and cinema, have little trouble sensing the tension. The thought of having your life force slowly and brutally beaten out of you by a rock-throwing throng is too terrible to imagine. But fornication is a serious sin, and the law calls for harsh punishment.
It’s no wonder we have paid so much attention to this story over the centuries.
Reading the story in 2019, in fact, makes us a little queasy. We might even find ourselves wondering if such a violent death is a just punishment for extramarital sex (as we assume this is what it meant by “the very act of committing adultery”). All of us have passed through (or are passing through) adolescent hormone storms and all of us throughout our lives have been led unto temptation and put to the test. 
At the same time, we don’t know anything about this woman except what she is accused of. Is she at the age of consent and, if so, was she a consenting adult? 
Was sex forced upon her or was she soliciting? 
Prostitution, as we have all heard, is the world’s oldest profession, but I suspect if this was the woman’s profession she would have been too smart to get in the very act.
From our vantage point, we might even wonder if being a hooker justified a death by stoning. Today New York City police no longer charge prostitutes under 18 – in other words, children – with a crime. These children are not criminals but victims of human trafficking. The same is usually true of older sex workers, most of who are exploited by the pimps and systems to which they are indentured.
Be that as it may, I don’t think Jesus was thinking about the sexual misconduct of the woman brought before him. He was thinking about the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.  And when the Pharisees demanded to know what his own interpretation was, he knew they were setting a trap for him.
Indeed, some scholars think this is what this drama is about: a rhetorical exercise to catch Jesus saying something that was against God’s Mosaic law – which would in itself have been a serious offense.
Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, doubts the woman caught in adultery was in any real danger of being stoned. Regardless of what the law said, there is little evidence that ancient Jews actually stoned people. That kind of inhumane punishment of sinners was more prevalent in the Christian era, when you could be burned alive at the stake for reading the bible in a language other than Latin.
It’s more likely, Dr. Levine believes, that the Pharisees would not have had the stomach to stone a woman to death, but they created an artificial scenario to trip Jesus up.
“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they said to Jesus. “Now what do you say?”
They knew if Jesus said, ignore the law, let her alone, they could charge him with heresy and destroy his credibility with the law-abiding Jews who followed him.
What does Jesus do?
He kneels down and writes in the sand with his finger.
What did he write?
Was he just killing time, as some suggest, while he thought of an answer?
Did he write the name of one of the Pharisees as if to say, “Come off it, Moise, I saw what you were doing Sunday night”?
Or, as some say, was he writing a timely reminder from the scripture we read today to shame the Pharisees into better behavior?

He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God.” (Micah 6:8-9)

We will, of course, never know what Jesus wrote in the sand. 
But whatever it was, it had sufficient force to open the ears of the Pharisees when he evaded their sinister trap.
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Foiled again. The Pharisees shuffled away in rhetorical defeat.
For those of us who read the footnote in our bibles, it should be noted that none of the most ancient manuscripts of John include this passage. Some scholars – the sort who pour cold water on our enthusiasm for Jesus’ verbal conquest of the Pharisees – doubt it really happened.
But my uneducated hunch is that it did really happen, and the fact that Jesus wrote in the sand is a clue to its authenticity. It feels like the kind of odd thing that wouldn’t have been reported unless it really happened.
Writer and worship leader Julie Barrier notices that someone is missing in the scenario of the woman caught in the very act of adultery: the man who was caught in the very act with her. Bringing only the woman, Barrier writes, is a violation of the oral law of God.
With violators of the law brought before him, “the priest was required to stoop down and write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, in the dust of the floor of the temple,” Barrier writes. “By doing this, Jesus showed his accusers that they were not keeping the law, but He would anyway.”
“The Scribes and Pharisees ignored the law, brought the woman only, and then continued with accusations,” Barrier says. 
When Jesus wrote in the sand and then stood up, he had demonstrated the accusers were not keeping the law themselves. Though they had no intention of stoning the woman, they were eager for Jesus to condemn her. But when Jesus said, “He who is without sin … throw the first stone,” he had out-flanked the accusers and exposed their own violation of the law.
It’s an interesting theory and, for me, makes it seem more likely that this encounter really occurred.
But in the end, the lesson Jesus taught is about judgment, a warning to refrain from judging other sinners when our own sins are still darkening our lives.
It’s also a reminder that God forgives our sins automatically when we repent, that God loves us unconditionally, and the notion of stoning a sinner is intolerable to God.
Jesus, at the climax of this drama, demonstrates God’s love for the woman caught in sin by sending her on her way, forgiven and whole.
And out of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves comes the ultimate guide for all of us sinners and saints:
He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God.” (Micah 6:8-9)