Today’s beautiful gospel of the woman taken in adultery contains that curious detail of Jesus stooping to write in the dust with his finger.
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Apart from the fact that this detail shows Jesus could read and write what does it really mean?
Why did Jesus write in the dust of the earth?
There are three traditional interpretations. First, maybe Jesus was just doodling. He was stalling for time. He was giving the Pharisees the brush off. But Jesus doesn’t waste time and doesn’t ignore people so that’s out.
A second interpretation was favored by St Jerome and by lots of commentator since. This version says Jesus was writing the names and sins of the accusers in the dust. That would fit the story sort of, but why writing in the dust. Yes, well maybe but why write in the dust? Why not tell a parable about the accusers’ sins or speak out their names and give, let’s say, the number of the commandment they had broken? It’s a plausible theory, but it still seems like we’re stretching for a solution.
I once came up with a third option I’d never heard from anyone else, that Jesus is performing a significant, prophetic action. Elsewhere he refers to himself as “the finger of God.” (Luke 11:19-20) so maybe this is a prophetic action. He is, with his finger, designing in the dust of the earth the way God created Adam from the dust of the earth. Therefore he is revealing himself as the creator. Creative maybe, but far fetched, and it doesn’t really fit the context.
No, the fourth answer is correct, and this is one which dates back to St Augustine.
But it’s a riddle, and to understand we have to go back to the context. In chapter seven of John’s gospel, (which is immediately before the passage of the woman taken in adultery) Jesus’ conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees has reached a climax point. They are plotting to kill him and he knows it and actually calls them on it.
Here’s the passage:
Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. 15 The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”
16 Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. 17 Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 18 Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. 19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
20 “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?”
21 Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. 22 Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. 23 Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
The argument goes back and forth, and the people are wondering who he really is:
At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. 31 Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Jesus does “signs”. John is big on this. The “signs” Jesus does are always secret significant acts that point to his true identity. So at the beginning of his gospel ohn says the miracle of the wedding at Cana in Galilee was the “first of the signs that he did.” In that “sign” Jesus performed the duties and took on the role of the bridegroom thus showing that he was the prophesied bridegroom of God’s people Israel.
So what is the next sign Jesus is going to perform?
In chapter seven he says,
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”[c] 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”
We need to ask, therefore, who is the “Spring of Living Water”?
The answer is in the prophet Jeremiah.
In chapter seventeen Jeremiah is inveighing against the corrupt and unbelieving religious leaders of Israel. Go here to read the whole chapter. He is calling them out for following false gods and turning away from the Lord. The cornerstone quote is verse 13:
Lord, you are 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 water.
Ha! There’s the answer to the riddle! Jesus calls himself the Spring of Living water. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink!” he says in the verses just before chapter eight. (and remember, the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible are a much later addition to aid easy reference. They’re not in the original)
What happens to those who forsake the Lord? According to the prophet Jeremiah–and remember the Jews at this time knew their Old Testament forward and backward–those who forsake the Lord who is the Spring of Living Water–will have their names written in the dust.
Dust you are and to dust your will return.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
By this prophetic sign Jesus is showing who he really is: The Lord who is the Spring of Living Water…he is also showing his accusers–who have planned to kill him–exactly who they are. They are the corrupt, immoral liars and murderers who the prophet Jeremiah condemned.
I believe Jesus just wrote their names in the dust and they, knowing the prophecy, understood that he was holding up a mirror to their apostasy and corruption. On the second occasion he may also have recorded the details of their own liaisons with the woman. Notice that the adulterous man was not brought for judgement. Why? Because it was one of them? Probably.
In this way Jesus recapitulates not only the prophet Jeremiah, but also the prophet Daniel in his encounter with the elders in the story of Susannah.
So the writing in the dust is one of Jesus’ signs to show who he really is. He is the Lord, the Spring of Living Water. If you reject him your name will be written in the dust of destiny.
This is amazing stuff, and lest you think I am a Bible scholar of great and wonderful awesomeness, this is all unlocked by the brilliant Dr Brant Pitre in his weekly commentary on the Mass readings at Catholic Productions. If your homilist is ignorant and uninformed, subscribe to Catholic Productions. I use Dr Pitre’s pithy videos each week for my own sermon preparation. Believe me. The subscription cost is well worth it!
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