In the story of Jesus and the accusing mob of John 8:1-11, I can’t help getting caught up in the mystery of what Jesus was writing on the ground. It’s such an unusual moment in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, this description of something he was doing that doesn’t seem to move the action. It’s so nearly a glimpse into something personal that, as someone who wants to think I have a personal connection to Jesus, I want more detail.
One of our faculty referenced this story in a description of his personal faith, and sparked an insight into my obsession with this obstructed view moment. Just a few chapters before, in John 5, Jesus is in the midst of a familiar conflict with the religious establishment. The bona-fide keepers and interpreters of God’s law are challenging Jesus’ authority based on his decision to heal on the Sabbath, a sure sign of unorthodox faith. As the intellectual and spiritual leaders of God’s people aim God’s law against the Word who was with God in the beginning (as John calls Jesus), Jesus responds, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (5:30).
He continues, with maybe a twinge of heartbreak, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39-40).
These scripture searchers, these “scribes and Pharisees,” are the ones who bring this accused woman to Jesus. This is a high noon moment. It’s a showdown between the guys with the badges and the drifting preacher.
The scholars line up their credentials, publications and peer-reviewed conclusions.
Jesus writes with his finger on the ground.
The confrontation is not just between two ways of understanding the scriptures. It is the authorities on the word of God against the authority of the Word of God.
My obsession with what Jesus was writing calls me to look a little deeper at my own perspective on scripture. I want more information, correct information. useful information. I want more data to process the problems and people in my life, to come to the answers I need to feel good about where I stand. Sometimes when I am comfortable with scripture, it is because I find it justifies my will for others. Just like a good Pharisee, I s’pose.
What Jesus says about his life is that he can only do the will of God. The will of God is in the doing, and, particularly, in what Jesus is doing. I’m indebted to Ray Anderson for the suggestion that we let the work of God interpret the word of God. The earliest Christian scholars had no trouble letting Jesus be the lens through which they understood all of scripture, and let the cross trump any seeming tensions. I think, for all our unselfish intentions and well-studied opinions, the true test of a hermeneutic is the performance of the word by the community of God’s people. In this story, as right as the religious leadership may have been about the content of the law, the doing of God’s will was not in their interpretation of God’s word. It was in the gracious work of the Word.
In this situation, the “word of God” was clear, yet Jesus, who Matthew’s gospel says came to fulfill the law, chooses to work with his Father in a way that does not account for what is written. “It is written;” sounds so powerful, so strong, so final. But the words at the tip of Jesus finger are lost to the winds of history, while this story of Jesus’ work remains to point the way to life.
What do all our ink-and-paper words of God amount to compared to the incarnate Word, who, the scriptures testify, is in us, as we are in his Spirit, offering his life for the world to the Father? What good does it do us to decide a right interpretation that is not confirmed in a Christ-shaped life for others?
We are troubled by many things that scripture says and does not say. I am troubled. I want to understand, or understand differently; if only certainty was there or not so clearly there, I would know what to say to those who want to know where I stand. There are so many decisions about life, and in every moment, for which I just don’t have a chapter and verse to rely. Sometimes the “authorities” want me to commit to something that doesn’t sit right with me. But who am I to argue? And sometimes I find myself comfortable with the difficulty of scripture because it allows me to argue rather than act. Who am I to lead?
But Jesus says, here is life: let’s do the will of God.
May I turn to the paper and ink of scripture in order to find the one to whom they humbly witness. May I offer the accusers around me a lived, cruciform response instead of escalating fear, anger, and blame. May I offer those accused the sanctuary of Jesus, who protects, who frees, who lights the way to life ahead.
You; not me, I pray.