By Joe, Reader at St Mary's.
May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit –
Amen. Please be seated.
Our reading from the Gospel according to John tonight describes one
of the occasions where the Jewish spiritual leaders of the day – the
scribes and the Pharisees are attempting to catch Jesus out. Why are
they doing this? Well, they see his radical teachings as a threat; at
the very least they’d like to embarrass or humiliate him in front of
the people so that He loses influence. And perhaps, if they can
manage it, they’d like to hear him teach something that is so radical
that he can be brought up in font of the Jewish or even the Roman
authorities and be properly punished.
The story is well known; the scribes and Pharisees confront Jesus
with a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery – a very
serious crime, punishable by death by stoning according to Mosaic
Law. The religious leaders hope to put Him on the spot; if he
condemns the woman then there is no difference between His
teachings and theirs, and given Jesus’s teachings about mercy He will
come across as a hypocrite. If he doesn’t condemn, then Jesus is
going against the Mosaic Law that underpins the whole of society.
Jesus says very little; he sits and writes something in the dust, then
suggests that any of the crowd who is without sin should throw the
first stone at the woman. No one does; they drift away; and when
they’re gone Jesus tells the woman that she should go from the place
and sin no more.
It would appear that Jesus has managed to escape the trap by
shaming the crowd into realising that no one is without sin, and
reminds the women that whilst she has sinned, she should now leave
her sinning behind her and get on with her life.
It’s very easy to miss what that between Jesus being put on the spot
by the leaders, and him answering, he takes time to sit on the ground
and write in the dust.
We read that:
“he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you
who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”
And then he bends sits down again and writes some more. And it’s
after this second action that the crowd gradually start to drift away.
I think it’s appropriate that given the day, we take a closer look at
this apparently simple act.
Working on the principle that the presence of text in the Gospels is
almost always of meaning, and is part of the teaching experience
offered by the Gospels, what’s happening here?
This has been a question that has been pondered by theologians and
thinkers since the earliest days of Christianity.
Is Jesus just writing or drawing in the dust to distract his opponents
and gain time in which to determine exactly what to say? Or is there
something more? Jesus will be aware that his questioners are
knowledgeable in the Law. It’s also fair to assume that He is writing
for their benefit; they are close enough to see what he writes, and
will be educated enough to read it and hopefully discern and
interpret what He is writing.
One of the earliest explanations was that describing Christ’s actions
like this was a way of telling people that he was educated enough to
read and write. This is a pretty prosaic answer, but it does have the
effect of allowing the readers to see that in terms of being able to
read and write, Jesus is at least the intellectual equal of his
St Augustine had a more involved explanation. The Mosaic Laws –
those that originated with the Tablets of the Law that Moses brought
down from Sinai – are being discussed here. Now, in the Old
Testament book of Deuteronomy we’re told that the tablets were
written by God with his finger. St Augustine suggests that Jesus is re-
enacting the time when He wrote the tablets of the Law for Moses.
In other words, as the author of the Law, He was perfectly placed to
comment on it’s implementation.
His audience would also be familiar with the text in Genesis where
we are told that God created man from the dust of the ground. By
drawing and writing in the dust, could Jesus be further reminding his
listeners of their creation, that one day they will have to answer for
their actions to their creator?
I also like the idea put forward by an American pastor, Dr David Kyle
Foster, who suggests that Jesus is reminding the men debating with
him of some words in Jeremiah 17:13:
“O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to
shame. Those who turn away from You will be written in the
dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living
Rather than quote scripture, Foster suggests that the first thing he
writes in the dust is the names of the men. He is effectively telling
them that by their actions they are turning away from the Lord.
And then when Jesus writes in the dust the second time, after telling
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw
a stone at her.”
Jesus writes down the secret sins of the men against their names.
They read what has been written realise that they too are sinners
and are not able to cast a stone, then shame-facedly walk away
leaving Jesus and the woman.
I think Foster’s thoughts are very interesting.
They also reminded me of other words from Jeremiah, where the
Lord tells the prophet about the new covenant He will make with
“I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their
hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The Lord will write His law in the hearts of men, just as He previously
wrote the Law of Moses on the stone tablets. Here, Jesus writes in
the dust to remind the men about their creation.
Which brings us back to the focus of our service tonight – in the
words of the King James Version of the Bible – “Dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.” What can we take from this reading to
include in our Lenten discipline? Perhaps it’s worth pondering the
The Lord knows us intimately – were He to write our name and sins
in the dust at our feet, we would be as ashamed as those who
Our own sin should prevent us from judging those around us. This is
never easy, but it is expected of us. The Lord knows of our sins and
offers us forgiveness. Who are we to not to the same for other
And like the woman, we’re given a fresh start – to go and sin no
Let’s live this Lent season in a spirit of forgiveness and repentance.