Fifth Sunday of Lent
Today’s Gospel might be more well known for what it doesn’t tell us than what it does. Everyone wants to know—what was Jesus writing on the ground?!
Some, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, believe that He wrote the words of Jeremiah (“O earth, earth, listen…write down this man as sterile”) while others have thought He wrote the same words which he spoke (“Whoever among you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her”). In Gill’s commentary he writes that some think Jesus “wrote in legible characters the sins of the woman’s accusers,” while he himself thinks it most likely that “Christ on purpose put himself into this posture, as if he was busy about something else and did not attend to what they said.” He also offers another opinion, that Jesus was writing the names of the accusers in fulfillment of Jeremiah 17:13.
But let’s look at it another way.
Jesus was seated in the temple area teaching the people. The scribes and pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Him and asked His judgment on the case, after reminding Him that “in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.” In response, to their utter confusion Jesus bends down to write on the ground. (So we aren’t alone when we find this part confusing, the scribes and pharisees didn’t understand either, at least at first!) It is only after they continue to ask that He straightens and judges that the one without sin be the first to cast a stone….before returning again to write in the dust.
So what was He writing? Let’s look a little closer.
The scribes and Pharisees brought the case to Jesus for judgment in order to test Him; they didn’t realize that when they appealed to Jesus (“Moses said this, what do you say?”) they were appealing to the New Law! Jeremiah prophesied about the coming of the New Covenant and the New Law: “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:33) While the Old Law was originally written by the finger of God on stone tablets, those tablets were shattered when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, the Egyptian god Apsis. The Israelites received new stone tablets, but this time God didn’t write on them with His finger, Moses did (Exodus 34:27). Thus when the scribes and pharisees say “Moses commanded us” they were speaking more truth than they understood. But the New Law of the New Covenant is written by God in man’s heart. The word for man in Hebrew is adam (אָדָם), which also means earth or ground. And here we see Jesus, the God-man, descending to the earth and writing on the earth/adam/man with His finger, just as Jeremiah prophesied.
But the Scribes and the Pharisees did not understand this prophetic action of Jesus, they continued to ask Him. They thought that they had backed Him into a corner where He must explicitly reject the Law of Moses or abandon His own teaching. What they didn’t know was that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17) So He rose from the dust to speak to them before once again descending to write, showing that His judgment…which left the woman unstoned and the old law unbroken…was the fulfillment of the old law, it was the new law.
It wasn’t just His writing on the ground that was prophetic, His descending to the earth and rising again from it were also prophetic actions, speaking of God’s descent to the earth as Man and, after death, Christ’s resurrection. By His death and resurrection, into which we are baptized, our accuser is silenced and our sins are forgiven.