The stones drop
Peter Gallagher SJ considers how Jesus's oblique speaking and silent writing in the sand effectively communicate with us.
The effective ‘if’
Jesus wrote in the sand while the scribes talked to him. We would treasure anything he wrote. They, however, must have sensed that he was ignoring them. We long for our Saviour’s communications: we want thoroughly to understand his teaching. The scribes approached Jesus hoping to trap him. We come near the Lord with love hoping that he will help us. We want him to say whatever we need to hear. Jesus would never write in the sand while we were talking to him, would he? He listens to our prayers. He gives us his loving attention. He addresses us. We listen carefully, allowing our life to be ordered after the pattern of his teaching.
Sometimes Jesus can seem mysterious in his utterance. Do people need to be on his wavelength to understand him? His logic is that of his mission from the Father, his being the Son and his work in the Spirit. Sometimes those not schooled in this reasoning are at a loss to comprehend it or to link it with their own situation. We read in the Gospel of such incomprehension and we know that all through the history of the spreading of the good news there has been bafflement as well as delighted acceptance. There is disappointment for us in our own failure to be properly attuned to the Lord’s way.
We believe that Jesus wants to be understood. He has a mission of revelation. Yet hearts can be hardened against him. Even his friends get him wrong. On this occasion, he writes in the sand while inquirers are putting questions to him. Their motives are bad. The Lord always responds to poorly motived questions to the benefit of the questioner. This time, Jesus, although, at first seeming to ignore the scribes, communicates with them with astonishing effectiveness. Sometimes Jesus speaks obliquely. Here he begins with a conditional. Does he risk being misunderstood? If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. The ‘if’ could be a little vague. There is room for interpretation. Is the Lord going along with the murderous intention? ‘You want to kill this person, get on with it, if you are in good conscience.’ Jesus surely wants to save the woman from cruel execution. Will he follow up his if there is one of you with arguments for mercy or in mitigation or with an appeal for forgiveness for her? He does not do so. Then he wrote on the ground again. He ignores them once more. Is this a model of good communication? Jesus ignores them: he addresses a rather vague conditional sentence to them; he ignores them again. Yet does the Lord ever communicate with people so effectively? He wants them to leave their victim alone. He murmurs his if there is one of you… We learn that when they heard this they went away. The scribes and Pharisees do exactly as Jesus wants: when they heard this they went away one by one. If he had barked, ‘Be off with you,’ he could hardly have provoked more complete compliance.
The call to the examination of conscience
Someone is about to be put to death. Jesus gets rid of the would-be killers. He does so not by threatening them. There is no violence from him even of language. He does not brandish a weapon. Rather, our Lord Jesus Christ makes those who condemn examine their conscience. If there is any one of you... They understand his meaning right away. Religious men who are about to kill someone get Jesus’ message immediately. They are notorious for their unsympathetic reception of Christ. They are manifestly not on his wavelength. However they cotton on right away when he licenses them to ‘stone her, if you have not sinned’.
Why are they so quick to understand that they have no right to condemn another? Are their sins so much on their mind? Are they such hypocrites? Are their lives in such secret disorder? Are they in such danger of exposure that their violent impulse evaporates immediately when Jesus protests so mildly and so obliquely: if there is any one of you…? Perhaps it is not that they are so wicked but that they have tender consciences? They remember old sins. They recall the mistakes of long ago? They realise there but for the grace of God go I. Or, could it be that their acute self-criticism kicks-in not so much because of evil deeds but because of their wicked thoughts and intentions. They know that the Lord teaches that the heart also will be judged? Or do they suddenly see themselves in the person about to be put death for her sins? Is it out of sympathy that they no longer have any stomach for killing? The compassion which they feel should be shown to themselves and their shortcomings, they are now willing to extend to a fellow sinner.
Let us not rule out the possibility that the ready understanding of what Jesus means by making them look at their own life is something which provokes in these violent men nothing but resentment and frustration. His words may have been like a police siren suddenly heard which saves a victim’s life but is a great disappointment to the would-be murderers. Jesus’ quiet question thwarts eager executioners who go off more enraged than before: still furious with the public sinner and angry now against Christ also. It is possible. The call to the examination of conscience can annoy very much. Indignation over the sins of others is often reined in only very reluctantly. Righteous anger is too pleasant an emotion to give up easily.
If any of you is without sin
Nevertheless let us detect in the violent men portrayed in the Gospel a genuine change of heart. What is such a conversion? We may be hoping very much that someone we know will turn away from anger. We ourselves may have some violent resentment of which we long to be free. How does the change of heart come about? Is it thanks to a guilty conscience? Or does a tender conscience make the difference? Does conversion come from receptivity to what Jesus says? Is the decisive factor a willingness to be deflected by the Lord from a wrong course of action? In the case of the murderous fury against the woman about whom we hear in the Gospel it is what Jesus does and says that transforms the intentions of the killers. His writing in the sand looked like indifference. His question if any of you is without sin… could seem like a shot in the dark. It might appear that the Lord is not tremendously involved. He looks up, as if in surprise, and asks has no one condemned you? Yet Jesus’ intervention in the life of the condemned sinner and in the lives of her intending executioners is calculated and effective.
He goes to the Mount of Olives, then to the Temple, to give instruction to those who approach him. Casual seeming, he throws out his question if any of you and then he looks up. Jesus looks up at all the sinners: first at the scribes, then at the woman and then at us. His mission from the Father has brought him among us. He is busy. He is absorbed in his work. He looks up. He sees that some of us are angry and self-righteous. Or, he looks up and finds us left on our own with our guilt. He sends us all on our way converted. Now we are to live better. He saves us from our anger or whatever our sin is. He saves us from death. He asks us to stop doing what is wrong. He empowers us to live as he directs.
The Lord communicates with us at the deepest level
Are we understanding, as if for the first time, what the Lord is saying to us? We are beginning to know something about his forgiveness and something about our own wrongdoing which we did not grasp properly before. While he was writing in the sand we have been thinking. Partly, we have simply been found out. The goodness of Jesus reproaches our lack of goodness. No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. We review our life, however, and we repent of what has been wrong. Our need of forgiveness is very evident. Partly also we have glimpsed our solidarity with other sinners. I forget the past and strain ahead for what is still to come. If we are to make progress it will be in the community of those who accept Jesus’ help. The ‘strain’ of conversion of life is one which we share with many others. With a lot of fellow-sinners we may feel we have little else in common. We are in communion with all who are in the wrong and who long to do better.
We find ourselves at one with all the characters described in the Gospel. We are the person in disgrace. We are the righteous thugs eager to do violence. We also write in the sand. Busy as we are, we put to ourselves the devastating conditional which turns out to be such an inescapable imperative: if you are without sin... We discover ourselves implicated and responsible. Now we want only the perfection that comes in Jesus Christ. Jesus alerts us, gently, compassionately but with great seriousness to our solidarity with other sinners and their victims. He looks up from what he is doing. He was not ignoring us. He has helped us to understand. The Lord communicates with us at the deepest level. The stones drop from our guilty hands. We find ourselves alone with him. We go off rebuked and shamed. However we are also encouraged and converted by Jesus’ words. They are addressed to us all: go and do not sin any more.
Peter Gallagher SJ