We should begin our considerations of the woman caught in adultery, of course, by noting that the stoning referred to in our Gospel reading this evening is quite different from what we mean on a University campus by “getting stoned.” Both are deplorable, the stoning referred to in our passage even more so as its practice continues in some societies in our world today, especially against women. On the other hand, Jesus being stoned would certainly go some way toward explaining his odd behavior. In response to the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” If everyone else there were stoned, it would go a long way toward explaining why no one seems to have remembered what he wrote! But, no, neither Jesus nor anyone else present there, that we know of, was stoned. To suggest that they were would be an ahistorical and anachronistic interpretation out of sync with the liberal theological tradition we stand in here at Boston University.
Still, we are left with the perplexing question, what was Jesus writing? There have been many attempts to answer this question, some based on historical evidence, others arising from pastoral need. All of them are speculative. Of course, the status of the whole passage is speculative as well. The most ancient sources lack it entirely. Some that have it have it earlier in chapter 7, others append it to the end of the whole Gospel, and yet others hand it off to Luke. Unfortunately, we cannot possibly sort out the question of the historicity of the passage here, but thankfully Dr. Knust over at the School of Theology is writing a book about it and I am sure she would be happy to explain the whole thing to you if you are so inclined.
So where does this leave us? We still do not know what Jesus was writing and we have virtually no historical ground to stand on in answering the question. Well, since all of the possible answers seem to be speculative, we should feel free to be speculative as well. Come; let us speculate. After all, it is the only thing we know of that Jesus ever wrote!
What might we speculate? Well, some speculate that Jesus was just drawing lines in the dirt while he was thinking. Yes, even Jesus doodles. This makes some sense to me. I know I doodle in the margins of bulletins during longwinded and boring sermons. (Hey! Put that pen away!). Others speculate that he was writing the names of the accusers in accordance with Jeremiah 17: 13, “those who turn away from you shall be written on the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” This seems a bit like proof-texting. Others speculate that he was following Roman legal practice, writing out the sentence before delivering it orally. Of course, the idea that Jesus would emulate the legal system that would eventually put him to death is at least ironic. One of the oldest interpretations is that he was writing the sins of the accusers. Admittedly, this would have made it very difficult for anyone to claim they were without sin and then cast the first stone, but then the conclusion of the passage would have been virtually foregone.
One of the reasons the location of this passage is questioned is that it does not quite seem to fit. Prior to the passage Jesus is out in the countryside of Galilee preaching the good news and stirring up trouble. Following the passage, Jesus launches right back into the message: “I am the light of the world.” But here, in the first eleven verses of chapter eight, Jesus quietly and calmly manages the situation by subverting the question the authorities pose, and then is left alone with the woman they had caught in adultery. This is a very different Jesus. More importantly, it is a very different judgment.
Indeed, if anything is clear about this passage, it is that it is about judgment. The scribes and Pharisees accuse a woman of adultery and ask Jesus to pass judgment. Most of the speculations that have been offered have to do with what kind of judgment Jesus passed. The doodling Jesus speculation points toward cool, calm, rational judgment. The naming Jesus speculation points toward a scribal judgment based on the prophetic literature. The Roman Jesus speculation points toward political judgment. The sin-writing Jesus speculation points toward revelatory-religious judgment.
But is it really about judgment, or for Jesus is it about the judge? Jesus’ question to the scribes and Pharisees is subversive precisely because it calls into question not their judgment but their capacity and right to make judgments at all. Jesus sets the standard for the qualifications of any who would have judgment at sinlessness, a standard the scribes and Pharisees and everyone else who was in the temple could not meet. Of course, setting such a standard is a judgment in its own right. Recognizing this leaves the door open to Jesus’ own standard being turned back upon him. Who is to judge whether Jesus meets the standard for passing judgment? The scribes and Pharisees certainly would have called this into question. After all, Jesus was running around the countryside deceiving the people, from their perspective.
Ultimately, what should have happened is what we might call the judgment paradox. Anyone who might pass judgment must be sinless, but who has the right to make the judgment of sinlessness?
The funny thing is that the scribes and Pharisees never point this out. Given that they were not stupid, there is nothing explicit in the story that explains why they would not take this route of escape. How does Jesus avoid such an accusation? Well, now we are back to speculation. The only piece left in the story is what he has written on the ground.
So, here is my theory. What was Jesus writing on the ground? Jesus was writing his own sins.
Clearly, this throws a monkey wrench in the Christological gears. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect because only a perfect sacrifice can atone for the sins of the whole world? To be perfect, doesn’t Jesus need to be sinless? If Jesus was writing his sins on the ground, this implies Jesus had sins, so Jesus was not sinless, so Jesus was not perfect, so the sins of the world are not atoned for. Oh dear, we are not saved.
No. Wait. Stop. Atonement theories like these were imposed on Jesus long after he walked this earth. It is we who think we need Jesus to be sinless to save us, not Jesus who needs to be sinless to save us. Remember, Jesus is fully human and fully divine. To be human is to sin. This is what we recognize today, Ash Wednesday. Jesus is human; Jesus is sinful; Jesus saves.
Dear friends, we find in this Ash Wednesday Jesus who writes his own sins on the ground a way forward in making judgments in a sinful world. Who determines the sinlessness of the judge? Those being judged. This is the way out of the paradox. The scribes and Pharisees turned and walked away because they saw Jesus write his sins on the ground and when he then turned the judgment to them they knew that his judgment was true. By confessing his sins, in writing them on the ground, Jesus repents of his sins and is cleansed, healed, forgiven. The sinlessness of the judge is not in never having sinned but in accepting the judgment on sin, of confessing, repenting and being forgiven.
Here we are. It is Ash Wednesday. We come and receive the sign of the cross in black, dirty ash on our foreheads or on our hands. Just as the Ash Wednesday Jesus writes his sins on the ground, let us accept the ashen cross as a confession of our sins, a sign of our repentance, and let us journey together through Lent toward forgiveness and new life in Christ.
The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that the Jesus who writes and so confesses his sins and repents meets the standard to make judgment. And Jesus does judge. Jesus judges the scribes and the Pharisees. They accept his judgment in light of his sinlessness through the cleansing of confession. He judges the woman. His judgment is just. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” The judgment of the sinless is mercy. If we accept the sign of the cross in ash, thereby confessing our sins, repenting, and walking in the sinlessness of forgiveness, our judgment must be mercy. This Lenten season, let mercy lead and forgiveness reign. Amen.