Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, 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 once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir.”
And Jesus said,
“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
I have enjoyed many walks along Northumberland’s beautiful beaches, and during each walk I have been mindful of how each successive high tide wipes the beach smooth and clean with the earlier moated sandcastles, bunkers and deep holes gone: all the nascent civil engineering, artistic flair, creativity and imagination – all smoothed out of existence, along with the intertwined traces of foot and paw prints: defying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetic image of great lives leaving footprints on the sands of time – all gone! Today’s reading speaks powerfully of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness, and reminds us that ours is a God of new beginnings. Jesus is teaching, but is interrupted by scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman caught in adultery.
He does not react straight away, but writes with his finger on the ground, in the dust and sand. What was he writing? Why does the Gospel writer choose to focus on this small activity twice, when the force of the narrative lies elsewhere?
After writing, Jesus stands up, and speaks, turning the spotlight in front of everyone gathered there onto the scribes and Pharisees themselves. The impact of Jesus putting their behaviour and attitudes on display is electrifyingly unbearable for them, as one by one they peel away, unable to bear being scrutinised as closely as they were prepared to publicly scrutinise this woman. Their hypocritical tyranny is laid bare, Jesus literally stands up to them and exposes them for what they are, before crouching down again to continue writing quietly in the sand.
Whatever marks he made, whatever words written, they would have been quickly obscured and swept away by the footprints of many.
Eventually Jesus is left alone with the woman. In a short dialogue, she receives her challenging benediction: just as her accusers have gone and not persisted in their condemnation, Jesus refuses to condemn her, but adds, ‘do not sin again.’
The tide sweeps the beach clean.
Loving God, We thank and praise you for your amazing grace. Help us when we doubt that you are a God of new beginnings. Help us when the tide of your love mercy and grace cannot come in and sweep the beach clean quickly enough for ourselves or others. May we choose our powerful words with care, and stand up to those who tyrannise and bully the weak and vulnerable for their own ends. May our ears and hearts always be open to your challenging benediction. Amen.
The Rev’d David Herbert is the Moderator of the Northern Synod.