Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”“No, Lord,” she said.And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more. (JOHN 8: 1-11, NLT)
RULES vs HEART
After 15 cumulative years as a dad, I can tell you that parenting has both its joys & its challenges.
At the top of the list, on the joy side of things, would certainly be the cuddles and “I love you’s” (they do occasionally happen, when mum isn’t available); closely followed by my sons’ perspectives on things; their odd sayings and wrong pronunciations; their imaginative play, with their repetitive summons to “pretend this” and “pretend that”. I love helping and observing Corban and Eaden explore this world, walking with them through woodlands, sharing my favourite childhood movies and stories with them, and seeing their delight as they delve into a tasty plate of food (my eldest has a habit of humming if he’s eating something he really enjoys – it’s one of those sounds that’ll never tire of hearing). One of my more recent pleasures as a dad happened when we went watching the Jurassic World movie together; at the end of the film my youngest’s confusion expressed itself through the question, ‘Daddy, was the T-rex a good guy?‘.
But, of course, on the fringe of all these joys, there are many challenges. Most of which, boil down to trying to get my children to do what I actually want them to do!
To add to this natural problem is the constant realisation that rules have no power whatsoever in making my children do as they’re supposed to. Now don’t misunderstand; we have rules in our house. But the rules, in and of themselves, don’t do anything.
Rules to some extent don’t even empower my kids to make the right choices.
The only behavioural motivation they can really give is through offering something of a reward or a punishment. Which isn’t bad in itself, but then I ask myself, ‘are they only doing what is right just to get a reward and to avoid a punishment?’. Because, what happens when neither of those are available, and Mummy or Daddy aren’t around, will they still make a right choice, because it’s the right choice?
I find myself, as a parent, stuck in a tension. I don’t want to give my kids rules; I want them to capture our heart. But at the same time, I need the rules to help convey that heart – and yet, I know the rules themselves, are powerless to create that heart. In fact, it takes relationship to transmit a heart, not rules. It takes conversation and time and example, to explain something of the why behind the values we want them to grasp. Often though, in my impatience, this takes to long.
Often, in an attempt to skip the time required, and to get my kids to respond as I want them to – i.e. to win in the ‘who has the authority’ tug-of-war – I just skip the explaining part by playing the trump card of, “because I’m Daddy, and Daddy says so”. But this is a really dangerous play. When I do this, all I’m really telling my kids is that they can’t have their way because Daddy wants his. Using this ‘short-cut’ doesn’t really impart my heart; all they’re catching is that if you’re bigger and stronger and ‘in charge’, you make the rules and everyone else has to follow those rules.
Which is a clear lesson in missing the point.
I sometimes think, when I’m throwing a grown-up tantrum at my kids about them having a tantrum, aren’t I just reinforcing their point-of-view about the power of having a tantrum? I’m kind of doing a parental version of Crocodile Dundee, “That’s not a tantrum; this is a tantrum”.
As a parent, I want them to understand why it isn’t good to steal; why it’s not the right thing to lash out at someone if you don’t get your way; why it’s good to be helpful and tidy-up and take care of your things and other people’s things; why it’s good to share your sweets with your brother while at the same time it’s bad to demand that your brother shares his… I especially want them to understand why it’s not wise to just randomly shout out at the top of their voice in the back of the car while daddy’s driving.
It’s not rules I want them to get, but the heart behind the rules. Sadly though, the rules often steal the lime light. Because if we’re not careful, it just becomes a matter of what is written in ‘Black & White’, and we become blind to the actual trajectory that the rules are implying, the kind of person the rules are trying to guide us towards.
A similar thing happens at work. We have engineering standards; codified rules for how things should be designed and executed. They’re ‘Black & White’, literally. And yet, there have been numerous occasions when I have had to explain to a trainee, or even to other engineers who are approving our work for the client, that they’ve misapplied the rules of a standard – ‘You’ve not followed the code!’ (I’m not immune to hearing this said to me, too). When this is pointed out, the response I normally get is, ‘But I’ve only done what the code says’, they’ll then point me to chapter and verse, ‘It’s written in clause no. X, of paragraph X, within section X’. And they’d be right, what’s written is what they’ve said. So I then have to point out to them that there’s a ‘principle at work’ behind the code; a principle which they’ve misunderstood, which has then led them to misapply the rule, or, in some cases I encounter, maybe even fail to go beyond the written rule to do more than what it asks of them.
So they’ve kept to the rules, but they’ve not actually followed them.
Which may sound an odd thing to say, but it’s possible to keep to the rules and yet still break them at the same time.
As another example, that may be a bit clearer. We live in a country governed by laws; some of those laws are “Tax Laws”. And i’m certain that most of us are aware that it’s feasibly possible to keep to the tax laws, while at the same time, avoiding and missing the purpose of why we have tax laws in the first place. It’s possible to dodge paying our taxes, and using the rules to do so. But at the same time, we complain about the state of the NHS, or our roads, or Public Schooling, or the Police Service.
Think about it; it’s feasible to be able to go against the purpose of the law, even while following it to the letter! We can keep to the rules, but we don’t really follow their trajectory. We miss the heart, so we miss the point.
What’s all this got to do with the passage above? Well…
When Jesus is asked about which is the most important commandment in the whole of the Old Testament ‘Torah’, Jesus’ answer is that it’s all about ‘Loving God and loving each other’. Jesus takes all of the Jewish ‘laws’, and condenses them into this one statement. For Jesus, ‘loving God and loving each other’ is the complete summary of everything Moses spoke about, and it’s what the Prophet’s spoke about. In other words, one of the main purposes behind the Old Testament Law, was to somehow point us in the direction of love.
And yet, we also know from the other things that Paul the Apostle says, and from what we read in the OT history… that the law by itself is powerless in making people any more loving. As the Prophets show us, some people could keep, more or less, to the rules as they understood them, but actually miss the point. They could tithe, sacrifice, and keep the new moon festivities and fasts; but at the same time they would deprive the poor, neglect the widow, and oppress the foreigner. They learnt sacrifices and rituals, but forgot about mercy and justice and love. They learnt rites and rituals, but neglected relationship.
You see the rules don’t really have any power. They simply indicate, but they cannot compel. The words speak to us, but they can’t breathe life into us. The writing can tell us what we should do, but it actually has no power to make us do it. In fact, all the law can do is tell us of the charges against us when we fail to obey it. It highlights when we’ve failed, but it cannot save us.
Or, in the Apostle Paul’s words, “So the good law, which was supposed to show me the way of life, instead gave me the death penalty” (Romans 7:10, NLT) .
THE WRITINGS ON THE FLOOR; DIVINE DOODLES…
So, Jesus is at the Temple, and he’s teaching a crowd that has gathered around him.
But at some point during his lesson, the crowd begins to be disturbed as a group of people – made up of some of the teachers of the law and a number of Pharisee’s – starts pushing it’s way through the crowd; making their way to the centre where Jesus is sat. And when they reach there destination, they reveal this woman, placing her before the entire crowd, announcing that she has been caught in the very act of adultery.
Talk about stealing the show! This is tabloid news. Strategically they have captured the attention of every eye in the crowd. Maybe even more people are pushing into the crowd, to see what is happening?
And with the crowds attention craftily grabbed, they ask Jesus the question, “The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They’re asking this question, because they see Jesus as a law breaker. In their minds, Jesus goes around extending forgiveness to people outside of the official sacrifices; There are certain people who he shouldn’ be eating with, or touching, or entering the homes of, people he shouldn’t even be acknowledging. He is constant breaker of the rules regarding the keeping of the Sabbath. And when he teaches, he says things like “Moses said that, but I say this…” about all sorts of issues like anger, and murder, adultery and divorce.
Of course, we recognise that Jesus is not breaking the law, but going beyond the law. Tapping into what I said earlier; Jesus know’s what the purpose of the law is, he know’s it’s trajectory. In all his words and actions, Jesus is fulfilling the law. He knows that ‘the law’ is not, in and of itself, the example of humanity; it’s isn’t the ‘full-stop’ in the conversation. Jesus is the prototype of the Humanity that the law has always tried to point us towards.
But now he’s being challenged on his acts of ‘moving beyond’ the law. “Moses was pretty clear, she deserves to die… and you’re always one for going beyond the law… so what do you say… what could possibly go beyond the death sentence?”
They’re hoping that Jesus will do what he always does – forgive. And in doing so, Jesus will show a clear break with Moses. [As an aside, I love the fact that they’re suspicious that Jesus will forgive. Maybe us Christians should be more suspicious of this?]
So what does Jesus do?
He does something which I think is one of the most beautiful scenes in John’s gospel, if not all the gospels.
Jesus stoops down, and begins to write in the dust.
We don’t know what Jesus was writing. Although, there are many who have spent a lot of time trying to guess; most supposing that he is writing a certain verse from Jeremiah. Maybe Jesus is just quickly making a note of what he was just about to say to the crowd before being rudely disturbed? Or could he have just been practising his handwriting? Come to think of it, he could have been doing on the temple floor, what most people do on the back of white vans, “Also available in sandstone”, “Please clean me”… I merely jest, of course 😉
What does grab me though, is that Jesus is writing!
Writing, while saying nothing.
We’re given this picture of the divine stooping down and doodling in the dust.
And this writing is creating a tension. I can imagine the religious leaders getting really irritated by this, like anyone one of us would, ‘Has he heard us?’… ‘Is He ignoring us?’… The writer of this story tells us that Jesus’ apparent ‘ignorance’ causes them to keep pushing Jesus for a response; they keep demanding an answer…
Sociologically speaking, it’s interesting that Jesus can write.
We already know from the other gospels that Jesus can read (like when he is in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth), so it also makes sense that he can write. Scripture was read aloud in synagogues because most people couldn’t read. Most “common” people (I don’t really want to use that word common), at this location in history, were alliterate – with the exception of being able to read the odd road sign etc… (just like me driving around Wales and seeing “ARAF” written across the tarmac). But maybe we don’t think about the significance of this enough; especially when considering this scene.
So, let’s assume for a minute that maybe a proportion of this crowd have no idea what Jesus is writing, because they’re alliterate. Now, that adds a certain nuance to this whole situation, doesn’t it? Because, the people most likely to be able read what Jesus is scribbling, would be those that are now pushing and screaming at Jesus for a response (i.e. the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees).
And yet not one of them is really interested in what is being written. They can see, maybe they even recognise what Jesus is writing, but none of them acknowledges it. The divine writes in the dust, but nobody is really paying it any attention. The law giver continues to write in the dust of the earth, while the self-perceived keepers of the law, try and remind him of what has already been written.
Is it just me, but is there some kind of lesson going on here? Is Jesus making a contrast of sorts?
That those who have come to accuse, those who claim to know what is written are, at the same time, totally ignorant of what is being written in their presence through the physical movements of Jesus?
Jesus knows the law. Jesus knows what is written, he knows the “Black and White” of it. More than that, Jesus, as we’ve already said, fulfils the law; He’s consistently going beyond it, because he understands the purpose and heart behind it.
Jesus understands that the purpose of the law was never to dish out death, but to point towards a way of life. The purpose of the Law was never to see this woman killed, even if it says so in ‘black and white’, but to see her live. But there is no power in the law to make that happen. The law was given to help us to choose life, but it is powerless in making us do this, and it is shown impotent when we fail in making this decision. The law is powerless to move beyond the death verdict, when it is broken. The law requires, and has always required, someone outside of it to interject life where it summons death (isn’t this the story of the Old Testament anyway; not just the giving of the law, but also God consistently sweeping in and gracefully giving life to his people when the law could not; that the law always led God’s people back into a covenant place of ‘need’ for the life that could only come through God and not through rules?).
So, is Jesus’ writing in the dust, possibly symbolising the impotency of the written law to actually bring about life?
Eventually, Jesus stops writing, and He chooses to speak instead … “All right stone her…”
Now hold on a minute, that’s quite a gamble to take here Jesus! I’ve met some people, especially some religious people. And I’m sure we’ve all seen how arrogant people can be (religion or no religion) – I’ve certainly seen my own arrogance. I can, very easily in fact, imagine situations where if this kind of statement was made in the midst of a crowd today, we’d most likely see the complete and utter opposite of what we read in this story.
If I was the woman stood in the middle, I would be bracing myself to expect a brick or two!
I imagine Jesus’ words giving her accuses, herself, and the gawping crowd, the same shock as it does to us; this wasn’t his normal response. I can imagine a pause here, with the religious leaders being slightly taken off guard. Were they actually prepared to stone someone; did they plan for this eventuality? After-all, what they were really after was trapping Jesus into letting this woman go.
But before the religious elite can come out of there stunned stupor, Jesus continues, “…but let those who have never sinned throw the first stones.”
This seems harsh. We need to see that Jesus is not consenting either way; he is not agreeing with the woman’s actions, at the same time he certainly doesn’t consent with the “just kill and have done” attitude of the religious zealots – especially when the woman is actually just being used as bait in their little game of trapping Him.
In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, ‘Well, if you’re going to take the law of Moses so seriously, we should all find ourselves guilty, too!”
I like this, in a way. They have purposely took no notice of what Jesus is writing – it would have been nice if they did, maybe then we would have had a record of it – but Jesus doesn’t give up on trying to teach them, either. The woman’s not the only one Jesus is trying to save in this story. Because they refused to perceive what was being written in the dirt through the physical movements of Jesus, He then takes one last gamble in their knowledge of what was already written in an attempt to get through to them – what would it really mean if they followed the law to it’s full, and only, conclusion?
So they slip away. One by one.
They arrived as a mob, allied together because of someone else’s guilt; but they leave as individuals convicted of their own.
I wonder, did they realize that their actions weren’t motivated by any love, but driven by the desire to see Jesus humiliated and exposed? They were even willing to allow someone to be killed, in order to achieve that aim.
At this point, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ She replies with a “no“, and Jesus says, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more“.
I love this, the rules are powerless to do this, because the law can only stop at condemning us. But Jesus chooses not to condemn, he goes beyond the law; showing grace and mercy and forgiveness. Where the law calls for death, He commissions her to live instead!
And that’s where this story ends…we don’t find out what happens next!
This story of the woman is left open ended; we don’t find out the next scene in her day, or what she went on to become. But this story isn’t just about her, it’s also about the lynch mob that brought her before Jesus. What will they do with the mercy shown to the woman; will they chase her down again later, away from Jesus? How will they look at her the next time they spot her in the market square? How will both groups, the woman and the mob, react to the mercy and grace that has been shown?
GOD’S GLASS HOUSE CALLED GRACE:
So why am I talking about this? To be honest, I just wanted to talk about Jesus.
But while I was wrestling with this story, I kept thinking about the nature of church, and how fragile it all is. I don’t mean to refer to the church as ‘fragile’ in heretical way; it’s Jesus’ church, but it is full of people like you and me.
Now, this is only a loose picture, by no means a perfect analogy, but I kept thinking of the church – the community that we form together – as ‘God’s Glass House of Grace’.
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones“, is how the saying goes. And this story is all about the temptation to throw stones. When churches become moralistic and legalistic, then we really do risk bringing down the house on ourselves. On the other side, if we become libertine, where there are no rules, and we mistake forgiveness as consent, then we also risk thwarting the whole purpose of the house.
This is a fragile structure. And our response to this fragility needs to be carefully handled. If we move one way or the other – into legalism or permissiveness – then this can quickly descend into becoming a Human institution, a man-made endeavour, something we are building. But this is God’s building; a building we are called to dwell in.
We somehow have to do the hard work of living in this ‘Glass Environment’ called ‘grace’; in which the rule of forgiveness, mercy , grace and love reigns, on the one hand, but where we are called and our learning to respond to the commission to live, on the other.
How do we process the grace and mercy God has shown towards us? How do we process the grace and mercy God has shown towards others?
And that question is aimed at all of us.
We only live because of what Jesus words and movements have said and done. We live, not because we’ve kept to the “Black and White” letters of the law, but because the law of Christ has been spoken into our lives; a law formed by a living word which fulfils the heart intention behind the written word – an intention that aims to give us life, a life in all its fullness.
None of us are innocent. None of us are condemned. All of us have been commissioned to live.
After all, we are but dust. But the divine has come and doodled in this dust, leaving behind his fingerprints and scrawling “mine” into our identities.
Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed