Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
“Don’t just sit there. Do something.” It is possible to imagine the scribes and the Pharisees yelling this at Jesus as he bends down and writes with on the ground with his finger. There is, no doubt, an urgency in the crowd to carry out the sentence of stoning on this woman who has been caught in adultery. As we repeat often today, “Justice deferred is justice denied.”
What Jesus does, however, is precisely to just sit there. He halts the urgency and discharge of the rage and desire for revenge on the part of the crowd. In throwing the crowd back on themselves, “Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”, Jesus challenges them and their very notion of “justice.” As each person who had so insisted on stoning the woman walks away, Jesus is left alone with her. In the words of St. Augustine, “Only two remain, the wretched woman and the incarnation of mercy.”
In his commentary on the gospel of John, Francis J. Moloney points out that when Jesus, who at first is indifferent to the crowd, challenges them that only the one without sin may cast the first stone, he is probably referring “to sin in the sexual area.” (The Gospel of John, p. 261) There perhaps is no other area of life in which our experience of what it means to be human, and to be holy, is murkier. In the realm of desire, and often in related action, we confront the gap between the “ideals’ we espouse and the reality we experience, between our public acceptance of the laws that have been handed down to us and the tortuous quality of our own hearts. Our personal and inner contradictions and tensions are so difficult to bear that we can far too often seek to externalize evil onto others whom we can then judge and condemn.
Jesus, first in his apparent indifference to the crowd and then through his direct challenge, throws them back on themselves. He does the same to us today. What is the source of our vehement demand for “law and order”? What could lead the State of Arkansas to execute 8 men in 10 days merely because the use date on one of the lethal injection drugs is set to expire? What would make lynch mobs of ostensibly “good citizens,” or lead people to support the wholesale terrorizing of immigrant families by their government? In the last analysis, it well may be our refusal to recognize and face our own sinfulness and our desperate need for God’s mercy. It seems unquestionable that it is the degree of our own unrecognized “disorder” that determines the level of our “rage for order” directed toward others.
Jesus doodles on the ground as a sign of his disinterest and perhaps even disgust with the hypocrisy of the crowd disguised as zeal for the law. His challenge to them is that they recognize themselves in the woman, that they identify with her rather than to project onto her all their conflicts and fears. The result of their being brought face to face with their own sin is the disbanding of the mob as “they went away, one by one.” In the mob, we become ever more distanced from our humanity, which includes our own sinfulness. An “ekklesia” is, on the contrary, those who gather mindful of their own and their shared sinfulness and, nonetheless, God’s merciful love. It is a gathering of those who are living in the truth of who they are. So, those who would have stoned the woman are left, in the face of Jesus, alone. The woman, on the other hand, is left face to face with Jesus and the experience of being condemned by no one.
The Xaverian Fundamental Principles speak of “a freedom and liberation never before imagined.” This freedom comes from living in the truth, including the truth of our own sinfulness. As long as we deny that truth, we may seek refuge in the mob (in the countless ways that the mob manifests itself in our world) but we shall never know freedom and liberation. When the mob disperses and the woman stands alone before Jesus, she can receive the words “neither do I condemn you.” Thomas Merton says that guilt and shame are social experiences. This is why we prefer to be part of the mob that is judging, lest we become the one who stands alone being judged. The sense of sin, says Merton, is, on the other hand, the knowledge that we have “violated the inmost laws of . . . [our] whole being.” It is our participation in the sin of the whole world.
Jesus is totally indifferent to our charades of self-righteousness. He is not interested in our setting the world straight on our own terms. Rather, he summons us to realize the “sin of the world” within us, that we may stand before him and learn that God does not condemn us but mercifully loves and forgives us. That love and mercy, however, is for all of us. Jesus teaches in the beatitudes that “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt. 5:7) We are not merciful, however, out of the virtuousness of our own hearts. Rather, we are merciful because we know we are not without sin and, despite the sin of the world, we are together, all of us, saved by the mercy of God.
This evil intention lay hidden under the question they put to Jesus, “What do you say about her?” (v. 5). Jesus does not answer. He is silent and does something mysterious: “He bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (v. 7). Perhaps he was drawing; some say he was writing the sins of the Pharisees … in any case, he was writing, as though he were somewhere else. In this manner, he invites everyone to calm, not to act in haste, and to seek God’s justice. But those bad men insisted and expected an answer from him. They seemed blood-thirsty. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). This response takes the wind out of the accusers, disarming them all, in the true sense of the word: All of them laid down their “weapons,” that is, the stones they were ready to throw, both the visible ones against the woman and the hidden ones against Jesus. And as the Lord continued to write on the ground, to draw, I don’t know …, the accusers went away, one by one, head lowered, beginning with the eldest, who was more keenly aware of not being without sin. How much good it does us to know that we too are sinners! When we speak ill of others — all things we are well acquainted with — what good it would do to have the courage to drop the stones we have to throw at others, and think a little about our own sins.
. . . .
“Woman, where are they?” (v. 10), Jesus says to her. This statement, and his gaze full of mercy, full of love, were enough to make this person feel — perhaps for the first time — that she has dignity, that she is not her sin, that she has dignity as a person; that she can change her life, that she can leave behind her slavery and begin to walk down a new path.
Dear brothers and sisters, that woman represents all of us who are sinners, that is, adulterers before God, betrayers of his fidelity. And her experience represents God’s will for each one of us: Not our condemnation, but our salvation through Jesus. He is the grace that saves us from sin and death. He wrote on the ground, in the dust of which every human being is made (cf. Gen. 2:7), God’s sentence: “I do not desire that you die, but that you live.” God does not nail us to our sins, he does not identify us with the evil we have done. We have a name, and God does not identify this name with the sin we have committed. He desires to liberate us, and he wants us to want this together with Him. He wants our freedom to be converted from evil to good, and this is possible — it is possible! — with his grace.
Pope Francis, Angelus, March 13, 2016