Writing in the Dirt
When you were in school did you ever get in trouble for drawing idly in your notes rather than paying close attention? Every once in a while, your mind wanders and you simply begin writing or sketching something that has nothing to do with the material your teacher is discussing, and then suddenly you are called on to answer a question as if you had been taking dedicated notes throughout the whole thing. It’s a terrible feeling, but one I’m sure that my esteemed readers have never felt personally. Let me assure you, however, it is not a fun position to have to ask for the question to be repeated or to answer that you simply don’t know. Sometimes such doodling can draw our attention away from what is important.
Not so, though, with the scene found in John 8.
In John 8, Jesus is approached in the middle of teaching in the temple courts by a number of leaders in legal matters and Pharisees, and being ushered along with them is a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. (Of course, notice that it is only the woman who is brought, and not both partners.) And the Pharisees and legal experts want to know, according to Jesus, what should be done about this sinfulness.
Now, the Law of Moses has clear instructions about what should be done, but the ones posing the question are not asking about the Law of Moses, they are asking about Jesus. They have noticed that Jesus seems, to them, to be “soft” on sin. He is too forgiving. He is too radical in his interpretations of the Law for their tastes. They want Jesus to make a mistake here and say something that is contrary to the Law of Moses so that they can expose him for the sinner that he is in their eyes.
And it’s at that moment that Jesus begins to doodle.
He bends down and writes in the dirt. No one knows what he is writing or even why (although there have been some very interesting theories throughout the years). But whatever it is, it is enough to hold the Pharisees and legal experts at bay for a few moments.
Ultimately, Jesus is able to dismiss them by reminding them of their own sinfulness and their need for grace too. The crowds disperse and everyone leaves until it is just the woman and Jesus left. In that private moment, we see a glimpse that Jesus is not “soft” on sin–he instructs this woman to leave her life of sin–but that Jesus is overwhelmingly directed and driven by an altogether different way of living and being in the world than the Pharisees and other leaders are.
So, what is driving Jesus? What is it that is directing him?
There are many adjectives or descriptions that we could give here to try to explain. We could say that Jesus is operating from a place of radical grace and we would be right. We could say that Jesus is acted humbly and inviting all of humanity to act humbly as well, and that would be true. We could discuss the ethics and merits of the Kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdoms of this world, and that would be both fascinating and instructive.
But today, as we continue to lean into our season of Being Known by Love, I want us to use this as our lens for this story. (Again, that is not to say that we cannot use the other lenses listed above or even lenses not listed. I think we certainly can. But for today or perhaps for this season that continues through the end of this year, let’s focus upon the lens of love.)
John writes this story that we have been reflecting on in the Gospel of John, and in the first epistle of John, we read a slightly extended lesson on what love truly is (1 John 4:7-21). Of course, we also have the Greatest Commands in passages like Matthew 22:37-39.
All of these passages have the topic of love in common, but I think they also have another topic in common, and it is this that I think drives and directs the words and actions of Jesus: an unfailing commitment to treat others with love that cannot be dependent upon performance, but that is only possible because of each and every person’s identity as a creation of God.
In 1 John, John says that it is a command to love our brothers and sisters in order to show our love of God. The Greatest Commands also connect these two expressions of love for God and love for neighbor. And the passage in John 8 tellingly shows us what it looks like to love someone and what it looks like to use someone. Those who use the woman caught in adultery walk away reflecting on their own sinfulness, and Jesus, who loves this woman, sends her off to a new life that is not defined by her mistakes, but that is defined by her identity as a loved child of God.
When we talk about Being Known by Love, it is not a suggestion from Jesus–it is the very heart of what drives and directs his actions toward us, and not only that, but he invites us to allow this same direction to drive us in our lives. It is almost similar to the oath that those in the medical profession take of “doing no harm.” Only for followers of Jesus, we are called to an unfailing commitment to love based on each person’s identity as a creation of God Almighty.
For Jesus, in John 8, that meant making some love doodles in the dirt, and respecting this woman enough to draw attention away from her in this most vulnerable moment. What might it mean for you today? With your family? With your neighbors? With your co-workers? Even with those whom you struggle to like or who are flat out your enemies?
Live this week with unfailing love, knowing that you have been loved in such a way, and may we all find how to express our love doodles.