If you're familiar with the story of the woman caught in adultery, what’s with Jesus writing in the sand? I’ve often heard not to get lost in the weeds about things that aren’t explained in the Bible. In other words, we can spend our whole lives trying to understand sand writing, but miss the point which is we are all sinful and we all need the living water.
But…every time I read this story, I always get stuck on that part. John felt it necessary to include it, but it’s not really explained.Take a look at this…
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 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?” 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. 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.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
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. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What was he writing in that sand?
I’ve done a little research, and scholars are all over the place on this one. For something without a clear answer, people sure are confident on what they think happened here. Some say he’s writing their names to fulfill the prophesy in Jeremiah 17:13, "Lord, hope of Israel, those who leave you will be shamed. People who quit following the Lord will be like a name written in the dust, because they have left the Lord, the spring of living water.”
Some believe he was writing down the law this woman was breaking. Some say he was writing a list of the sins of the men convicting the woman. If this story happened today, someone would have gone back and posted a picture of the sand writing to Instagram. But alas, this was pre-social media. I always want John to have a little P.S. at the end of the chapter that says, “By the way, I asked Jesus what he wrote and here it is:____________.”
Like many mysteries of the Bible, we’ll never know this side of heaven what Jesus wrote. So, maybe a better question is why did he stop to write in the sand?
Some think the woman may have been naked since she was literally caught in the act of adultery, so he was averting his eyes to keep from seeing her body. I don’t buy it because he talks to her at the end. She didn't magically get dressed in that time. Another theory is that he was so annoyed with the teachers of the law and Pharisees that he didn’t want to look them in the eye. Or (because he knew they were trying to trick him) Jesus was kind of ignoring them.
Maybe, just maybe it’s none of these. Maybe Jesus was simply giving the men time to do the right thing. As a parent, our best moments are when we are able to de-escalate a situation rather than throwing fuel on the fire. If my kid lashes out at me, I want to yell back. To raise my voice and fight it out. But when I have the grace to stop and find a way to have space in that moment, usually the outcome is better.
We know Jesus is slow to anger because he is the embodiment of love which is defined in Corinthians as “slow to anger”. We know it took a lot to get him really mad because he did it so infrequently in the Bible. In this story, he’s cool as a cucumber. I imagine him using a soft voice and dealing with the men in a way that causes the least humiliation on the part of the woman. He’s giving the men time to do the right thing. To take a deep breath and realize they got beat and it’s time to let go. Since they were so sure they had him in a catch 22, this scene is more awesome with a few sand-writing sessions thrown in.
Obviously that’s not the end of the story and they will ultimately accuse and crucify Jesus, but here in this story, they walked away.
Jesus still gives us space and time to do what’s right. He urges us in our hearts to heed his teachings and know when to fight and when to walk away.
He walks away too, though he has every right to stone the woman. He is, after all, without sin. But he chooses not to condemn her. He leaves her with this command. “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”
Some may read this as Jesus not condemning, but then changing his mind and condemning her as he left. But this isn’t a statement of condemnation. It’s like a parent pleading with a child, “Stay away from those things that will ruin your life.” He’s trying to protect her. From the next time when he might not be there to save her. From being ostracized. From sin that separates her from her Father. It’s actually compassion, not condemnation. He’s probably the first one to truly care about her. Not about keeping the law. The men who just walked away cared about her keeping the law. He cared about her.
I love that we serve a God who took on flesh to walk in the sand and teach us that he cares about our hearts. The reason he was able to write in the sand at all was because he came down to our dusty, sandy earth to save us from our sins. Not to condemn, but to have compassion.
If we believe that, we have no choice but to worship him and have compassion for his children. Can you imagine what the world would look like if the church did that?
If Christians were actually known for putting down the stones and showing compassion instead of condemnation more people would be open to knowing Jesus. I hate that his name is tarnished by our inability to get this right. Can you do something? The next time you’re in a situation where you can throw a stone or not, don’t throw it. I imagine you’ll have this opportunity before you go to sleep tonight.
I'm not suggesting you would actually throw stones. Maybe you won't even gossip with a friend about how so and so in the neighborhood "got what she deserved" when her permissive parenting resulted in out of control teens. No, throwing stones looks a lot more like indifference to the poor. A weird thrill when someone who we envy is struggling. Our attitude toward homosexuals, illegals, or a woman who had an abortion. These are our stones. This is how we condemn instead of showing compassion.
Let’s vow to put the stone down and know that without our Savior who took the time to write in the sand, we’re no different from the half-naked, terrified woman in the center of an angry mob of stone-throwers.