“This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” John 8:6, ESV
Modern translations of the New Testament make a note, prior to John 7:53, that the earliest manuscripts do not have John 7:53 through 8:11, which is basically the account of Jesus, some Pharisees, a woman they had caught in adultery, and their desire to stone her to death under the law of Moses. I’m not exactly sure what that means in regard to how I should interpret this particular passage of scripture. I know some preachers who are adamant about the “inerrancy” and “infallibility” of the scripture, yet when it is convenient for them to preach something other than the principle that appears to be clearly taught here, they will invoke this notation and pass it over. There is, however, no explanation offered as to why earlier manuscripts do not have it. The principle that is taught is certainly consistent with the character and actions of Jesus in virtually every other part of the New Testament that records his actions and words.
The undeniable difficulty in the passage is what Jesus did with the law of Moses. He interceded with a group of Pharisees who were about to execute a woman who had been caught in adultery. The main agenda of the activity was to try to trap Jesus into saying something that wouldn’t find favor with the crowd. They were legalistic doctrinal purists who were trying to get Jesus to do something that would cause his popularity with the common people to diminish, and at the same time, to have cause to arrest him, thus removing him as a perceived threat. They were so focused on the letter of the law, that any humanity which might have entered into the situation had evaporated.
This was, in the mind of the Pharisees, a perfect way to bait Jesus and trap him into either a loss of popularity among the common people or a legal way to arrest him. Either way, they win. Jesus was an extremely popular figure among the common people because they identified with him. His compassion and mercy were the overwhelming traits of his character, the grace that he preached to the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom he spent the balance of his time was life transforming. There is no other explanation for why this angered the Pharisees except for the fact that they maintained their power and control by strict, legalistic enforcement of the law which they held over people’s heads by proclaiming that to go against it in any way was to oppose God himself. What Jesus was living out before their very eyes was a demonstration of what God desired and it undermined the Pharisees at every point. Not only that, but he had a reputation as a result of the genuine love and compassion he showed for everyone, especially for the outcasts, the poor, those who lacked influence, and those in the prison of sin.
So here is the perfect plan. Bring this woman to Jesus, and put him in a position of having to render a judgement about her sinful condition. If he approves the stoning, he loses the support of the common people, making him vulnerable to the authorities. If he intervenes to stop the stoning, he is assuming personal authority greater than that of Moses, which would be heresy to the Pharisees, enough to nab him without much resistance from his followers. But the perfect plan encountered a perfect savior. How did Jesus respond?
He bent down, and wrote on the ground with his finger.
There is no record of what he wrote. Clearly, it was an act of contemplation. And here is the example that we can draw from the way John chose to record this particular incident. Even Jesus himself took the time to think before he opened his mouth. He had the power to bring this issue to any resolution he desired. Knowing his ultimate destiny and purpose, he did not have to be careful with his answer. He had previously stepped through a crowd which had intended to do him harm, and he could have just as easily done that here. But he stopped, focused himself on another activity, and waited for a few moments.
And then he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
So as it turned out, he did not set aside or violate the law of Moses. He simply equated all other sins to the sin of adultery. In essence, he declared what he knew to be the truth because he was God, that the wages of sin is death, and that all have sinned. The tables were suddenly turned. He didn’t actually stop the stoning, he simply changed the conditions for administering it. If it were to continue, there would now have to be a selection among those gathered there to determine which lawbreakers would be the recipients of the stone throwing. It was either that, or everyone would have to drop their rocks.
So what is it that I am getting at?
Sometimes, as Christians, we become Pharisees who pick up rocks to stone those we have determined are not worthy of receiving the same blessings we have received. In spite of the fact that our own righteousness is borrowed from the cross, and that grace is all that stands between us and hell, we get the idea that we are better than other sinners, and that we can assume it is fine to stand in judgement of them instead of treating them the way Jesus treated us. We tend to be particularly hard on people who do not form the same secular political conclusions that we do, or whose lifestyle doesn’t reflect our own cultural biases. When it comes to differences of opinion on how to interpret scripture, or how to apply it, we are even willing to pick up stones to throw at other Christians. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’m not talking about mere disagreement here, I’m talking about behavior which conveys an attitude of moral superiority or anger toward someone we’ve judged to be a tax collector and a sinner.
Stop and write on the ground with your finger for a few minutes. You can do that literally or mentally. Write the word love over and over again and see what happens. I know it is something I need to do, and God has a great way of reminding me regularly. Many of the “tax collectors and sinners” that I meet, most of them in fact, treat me with more respect than most of the Christians I encounter. Imagine that.