Ashes and Grace

Just past Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season, John 8:1-11 seems somehow both unusual and apt as a choice of reading.

I’ve been using the daily readings of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and for the Thursday following Ash Wednesday, this is the New Testament reading.

It’s a fascinating and wonderful story. It appears between the Pharisees’ sending of the Temple guards to arrest Jesus, and Jesus’ “I am the light of the world” statement and teaching, and it’s framed with a sort of parenthesis and a note saying that the earliest and most reliable Scripture manuscripts lack the passage from John 7:53 to 8:11.

Yet it remains in the Bible. It rings true with the rest of the Gospel accounts of the Jesus we know and love. Even if it’s technically a section added later, this seems, in fact, very much how the Jesus shown by the Gospels would behave in these circumstances.

But the questions over its authenticity are only part of what makes it intriguing. There’s also Jesus’ mysterious writing in the ground, which we aren’t told anything about apart from that it happened.

The situation itself, too, is fascinating. Jesus, having flummoxed the Temple guards sent to arrest him, is back in the Temple, teaching the people.

In walks a gang of Pharisees, dragging a woman with them. She’s probably done up like a harlot, and just as probably not properly dressed. She’d been caught in the act of adultery. She’s been dragged, shame-faced and probably weeping, through who knows how many crowded market streets, up to the house of God. Through all the crowds of worshippers, to the feet of the One they call Jesus.

A Rabbi. Supposed to have miraculous or magical powers. Having a reputation for compassion, but what could even He do? She’d been caught in the act, her sin paraded before the world. If they’d stoned her immediately it would have been a mercy.

But no. She’s going to be used as a pawn in some dispute between the Pharisees and this young Rabbi Jesus.

“Tell us, Rabbi,” the angry mob begin, positioning themselves to trap their adversary. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery.”

Those in the crowd around draw back from her, as if her very touch might contaminate them.

“The Law commands us to stone such people,” the Pharisees continue sententiously, “but what do You say?”

The young Rabbi doesn’t answer. He bends over and begins to write in the dust. The Phariseesv questioning becomes insistent, and still He just keeps writing.

Then suddenly, He straightens up. “If any one of you is without sin,” He says, “let him cast the first stone”. And back to writing in the dust.

There’s a pause. A silence. The thud of a stone hitting the ground. Another. The Pharisees, one by one, slink away, unable to stand before the young Rabbi’s astonishing turning of the tables. Then it’s just him and the woman.

“Where are they?” Jesus asks. “Has no-one condemned you?”

The shake of a head, the woman’s emotions still too wrought for speech.

“Neither do I condemn you,” the Rabbi declares. “Go, and sin no more”.

Much has been said already about this passage, and I doubt I will add anything new. It’s a study in contrasts: the Pharisees’ attitude of complete indifference to the woman’s fate; Jesus’ compassion and mercy. The trickery of the accusers; Jesus’ radical raising of the game to a new level.

One of the first things we have to say, and it’s been said before, is “where was the man?” The Old Testament Law on the subject of people caught in the act of adultery was brutally clear: stone both of them, immediately.

Yet here are the Pharisees, selecting the woman as a suitable object lesson and dragging her off through the streets of Jerusalem to use as a pawn in their complicated trap for Jesus. What happened to the man?

There has even been speculation that the man was one of them; that they engineered the whole thing as a trap for the Son of Man. Scripture doesn’t say either way, but one way or another, their callous misogyny is on display for all the world to see.

They quite simply don’t seem to give a flying crap what happens to her. They don’t even care overly about her sin, except insofar as they can use it to set a trap. She doesn’t matter; she’s just a tool they can use.

It’s rather like what CS Lewis often says about the witches in his books: “they’re very practical people. They don’t care about people or things unless they can make use of them”.

Smugly, they throw her down at Jesus’ feet and bait their trap. On the one hand, Jesus’ history of demonstrating compassion. On the other, the Law of Moses. If Jesus forgave her, they could accuse him of breaking the Law and justifying adultery. If He condemned her, they could accuse Him of being harsh, unreasonable, callous.

And in response to their loaded questioning, Jesus does something that is on the face of it so weird that the whole kangaroo court proceedings grind to a halt.

He writes on the ground.

What did He write?

Scripture gives us no clues at all, but most scholars seem to think He was writing a list of the Pharisees’ own sins.

It’s possible. Even likely, given the situation.

My own read on what happened is slightly more subtle. I think He was writing a pointed list of the other commandments, the ones the Pharisees were breaking. “Have no other gods before Me”. “Do not commit murder”. “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”. And so on. A little more subtle than the direct writing of their sins, but I have my reasons.

After all, there was another time that God used His finger to write with. When Moses carved out the tablets of the Law on Sinai, it was God who wrote the Law on them, with His finger.

It’s entirely possible that Jesus wasn’t just writing to make a point, but was remembering. The Law which was not intended to bring death, but life. The Law that revealed the compassionate and just heart of the Father.

Either way, it has the desired effect. The Pharisees can’t condemn her. They know as well as Jesus does that you can’t claim to be righteous because you don’t commit adultery if you bear false witness and are full of covetousness. They aren’t the one sinned against. It’s not their Law which she has transgressed. It’s God’s. And God stands before them, ready to forgive.

Not the most comfortable of situations to find oneself in.

Jesus, on the other hand, can condemn her, if He wants. He was the One who wrote the Law to start with. He owns it; it’s His Law. More, He’s sinless. He’s not a Law-breaker in any of it.

And Jesus refuses to condemn. He won’t tolerate her continuing in her adultery, that much is clear. “Go, and leave your life of sin”, as the NIV puts it. But neither will He condemn her. Forgiveness and grace are extended; the character of the Good God upheld. Not willing that any should perish.

It’s no wonder there’s little debate over whether this actually belongs in Scripture. The passage looks like it belongs. This is Jesus, acting like Jesus.

The Lenten season is traditionally a time of penitence. Awareness of sin, sorrow and grief over it, awareness once again of the terrible price the Lord paid to make an end of it.

We don’t always think about forgiveness and grace in connection with the time of Lent. Our focus is typically more on sorrow, repentance and the price that was paid for us.

But I can’t actually think of a better way to begin a time of penitence than in the affirmation of God’s gracious and compassionate character. “With You there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Ps 130:4)

We’re entering the time of ashes and sorrow over sin. But if we do so without that affirmation of God’s forgiveness, it will be a heavy thing, an attempt to atone by the very depth of our own grief, if such a thing was possible. There are ashes in this season, yes. But there is also grace. We still call it Good Friday.


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