Friday, February 13, 2009

Letters in the Dirt

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.”

                        John 8.6-7

20 Questions

A friend of mine keeps a list of 20 questions about nagging details the Bible never bothers to explain. Two examples: Where did Cain’s wife come from, and what was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? The Scripture just drops these bombshells without elaboration, which makes my buddy crazy. So he memorized his list, hoping he’ll get answers in the life to come. With little prompting, he’ll rattle it off, bottom to top. His number one question arises from today’s text: What did Jesus write on the ground? I kid him about this. It won’t matter after we get to Heaven, I say. 1 Corinthians 13 says what we don’t understand now will be explained later. You won’t need to ask, “So, Lord, what was up with those letters in the dirt?” At the same time, I must confess it’s impossible to read how brilliantly Jesus eludes the trap set by the adulterous woman’s accusers without wondering about it.


Here’s what happens. A group of men bring Jesus a woman allegedly caught in an extramarital affair. They challenge Him with this: “Mosaic law calls for us to stone her to death. What do You say?” Ironically, they’ve bungled the edict they’re keen to exploit. The Law states both offenders—male and female—must die. Doing half a job is their first mistake. It’s obviously a set-up, as either anticipated answer gets Him in trouble. If He consents, He defies laws against adjudicating crimes and punishments outside Roman courts. If He doesn’t approve, He refutes Moses. People like these always perceive issues as either/or; there’s no middle ground for understanding.  How pleased they are to hatch such a failsafe scheme, to throw Jesus a problem without a viable solution! That’s their second mistake—thinking on their own and not like Him.

Jesus stoops down and begins writing on the ground with His finger. He stops after they won’t stop hectoring Him, stands up, looks them in the eye, and invites anyone who’s perfect to throw the first stone. He then returns to His writing. The Bible says the crowd dispersed one at a time, with the oldest men slinking off first. But it never looks over His shoulder to read His words on the ground. What does He write?

All of the Above

Over the centuries, scores of scholars have tried to solve the riddle, leaving theories galore—some so arcane and convoluted they can’t be condensed into a few sentences. One idea links Christ’s gesture to the “bitter water test” Numbers 5 prescribes for wives accused of infidelity. (I won’t drag you through the protocol, but if you question what inspired the ordeals of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Hunt, see verses 11-31.) The problem with this connection, however, is its not carrying a death sentence, which is what’s on the table here. A more palatable suggestion ties back to the very first law forbidding adultery—the seventh of Ten Commandments God personally etched in stone with His finger, just as Jesus writes on the ground with His finger. In this light, what He writes becomes less important because His gesture and words to the connivers say it all. It was about them—not the woman or Jesus. In their haste to ensnare and condemn, they forgot to account for their motives and behaviors.

In Matthew 5.17, Jesus tells us He didn’t come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. Throughout His ministry, but especially here, He shows the Law is designed to deepen our understanding of God’s ways. In writing on the ground He impresses on us that obeying our Maker overrules conforming to man’s laws and religious tradition. Pleasing God, we steer clear of condemnation on all sides. It stops us from disregarding our social responsibilities and disrespecting our faith heritage. In Acts 5.29, Peter and the other apostles declare, “We must obey God rather than men!” They were with Jesus. They read the letters in the dirt. They learned obedience to God’s Spirit isn’t a matter of “either/or.” It’s “all of the above.”

The mystery of what Jesus wrote on the ground is solved by His gesture and comment.

(Tomorrow: Playing the Fool)

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