Writing in the Dirt

One of my favorite Gospel passages involves Jesus’s reaction to a woman caught in adultery. Taken from John 8 and one of the readings in Monday’s mass, the story includes many aspects of what made Jesus’s ministry so compelling and singular.

He shows compassion for someone insufficiently respected in their day and age; in this case, a woman in First Century Palestine.

He points out the hypocrisy of those who seek to undermine him, telling the scribes and Pharisees who would stone the woman, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus also manages to cleverly dodge a trap set before him. As a helpful Web site GotQuestions.org points out, “If Jesus said the woman should not be stoned, they [the scribes and Pharisees] would accuse him of violating Moses’ Law. If He urged them to execute her, they would report Him to the Romans, who did not permit the Jews to carry out their own executions.”

What has always captivated me in this story – besides Jesus’s beautiful display of mercy – is his initial response to the scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.”

What was Jesus doing? Why did he write in the dirt? What was he writing?

The aforementioned Got Questions article suggests he might have been writing the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. Perhaps he was averting his gaze from the woman, who might have been brought to him naked. I remember once reading that his writing in the dirt recalled a previous passage in scripture. A Jesuit priest I  spoke to about this told me he imagined Jesus experiencing a very human sense of terror at what the scribes and Pharisees might do to this woman and, thus, took a moment to prayerfully think before responding.

There is, of course, no way for us to know with certainty what Jesus was writing or thinking, but that is one of the beauties of the Gospels. For all we know and take as familiar, there is even more mystery and mystique. What is chronicled by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John represents only a fraction of Jesus’s life. There is a great deal left unsaid, allowing us to slowly discover what Jesus wrote in the dirt and continues to write in our hearts.