WRITTEN IN THE DUST OF THE HOLY TEMPLE
READ: John 8:2-11
“At daybreak, Jesus returned to the Temple to teach. The scribes and Pharisees interrupted his teaching by bringing a woman caught in the act of committing adultery. They made her stand in the midst of the crowd. The religious leaders then asked of Jesus, ‘Rabbi, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Now the Scriptures say that we are to stone to death women of this kind. What do you say?’ The religious leaders were hoping to find some reason to accuse and discredit Jesus. But rather than answering them, Jesus bent down and started writing in the dust on the Temple floor with his finger. But the inquisitors kept pressing him for a statement. Finally Jesus stood up and said, ‘Well then, let the one who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.’ He then bent down and continued to write in the dust. The religious leaders, one by one, beginning with the eldest, gave up and left, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus then looked into the woman’s eyes and asked, ‘Where did your accusers go? Is there no one here to condemn you?’ She replied, ‘No one, sir.’ Jesus then said, ‘Nor do I condemn you. You may leave, but remember that from this moment on, you are to sin no more.'” – John 8:2-11
The Temple leaders came with stones in their hands and intrigue in their hearts. They could have cared less about this woman and her sin, their real and only agenda was to get Jesus on the record with words that could be considered as going counter to Scripture and custom. We see this in the fact that when Jesus called their bluff, the accusers dropped their stones, one by one, and left the accused behind. Then left alone with Jesus … this rabbi took the woman and her sins and treated them both with concern and mercy.
What Jesus wrote in the dust on that Temple construction site, the dust that fell from the workers’ chisels as they shaped the massive stones, is a mystery, with a variety of speculations offered. Maybe, the name of her partner in adultery, who is strangely absent in the scene. Maybe, her name, to show the woman that Jesus knew far more than she might expect. Maybe, another Scripture, or possibly the Scripture referenced to by the Temple leaders, only this time fully and correctly stated. Maybe, … maybe, Jesus was merely biding time, giving these accusers time to think long and hard about what they were doing … we do not know. We only know that while the accusers came with stones in their hands, Jesus wrote in the dust with His finger.
Yes, sin and sinners are realities of our human existence. Though so many would like to do away with the matter of sin and its irritating sense of accountability, from where I sit and from where I live, we are all still struggling with sin and being sinners. In this teaching moment in the Gospel, the reality of sin is not the issue, the issue is how we deal with the sin and how we deal with the sinner, people much like ourselves. The Temple leaders came casting stones to rid the culture of the sinner – though they seem remarkably blind to the sinfulness in their own scheming hearts! In contrast, Jesus dealt with the sin and the sinner by way of a mercy that both enables and expects a changed heart and a changed way of living. The Temple priests were not concerned about the woman’s life – no, not really. It was Jesus who looked her in the eye and said, ‘You and I both know that you committed adultery. I am not here to condemn you or to punish you, I am here to forgive you. But I do expect that my forgiveness, my mercy, will be received by you with a thanksgiving that will turn things around for you. Now let us do better in the days to come.” At least, that is how I hear the thoughts behind Jesus’ words and actions.
I find that when it comes to sin and sinners, there are three approaches to the matter. One way, a way with a growing following, is to simply ignore it all, to say it does not matter, to say sin is no more, no need to worry. A second way, the way of the Temple leaders, is to find sin in the lives of others and then to go after that sin and those sinners with condemning stones, most often stones now in the form of hard and stony words. These people believe in casting stones and leaving sinners behind. The third way, Christ’s way, is to deal with sin and the sinner, not with stones but with dust, dealing with the reality but through the ministries of mercy and hope. This … is how you love the sinner … and yet still help them with conquering the sin. And this … is how others can love you the sinner … and yet still help you conquer the sin. And this .. is how you can love people like me … and yet still help people like me … conquer the sin.
When I imagine this scene of Jesus and this woman … as the woman walks away, a gentle wind blows in through the Temple and the dusty words are blown away.
Brother Anthony of the Cross