In John’s gospel, it doesn’t take long for things to heat up. Blink an eye and Jesus is already getting into trouble. From the wedding at Cana (John 2), Jesus heads to the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the moneychangers, snapping a whip and overturning their tables. See what I mean? From the get go, there’s tension with the religious leaders.
The tension continues and continues to intensify. Jesus heals the man at the Bethesda pool and pronounces him a forgiven man. “This was why the religious leaders were seeking all the more to kill him.” When he proclaims strange words about eating his body and drinking his blood to receive life, the leaders understandably take offense. When he goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkoth, the leaders are ready to arrest Jesus. And we haven’t even gotten to the end of chapter 7.
Then Jesus shows his face again at the Temple. Ok, more than just shows his face. He sits down and holds a little bible study. Before long a crowd gathers.* The religious leaders catch wind of the impromptu meeting and with the snap of their fingers hatch an unassailable plan to catch Jesus red-handed. They will stretch him on the rack between his penchant for mercy and the requirements of the law.
So, they find a woman caught in the act of adultery, strong arm her into the midst of the outdoor lecture hall, and set their trap. Here are the facts, they say. This woman has been caught in the act. Her guilt is clear. The Law says she must be stoned. The Law of Moses. The highest authority in our tradition. Tell us what you would do.
The details of what happens next often go unnoticed. First, Jesus bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. Maybe the text of the commandment? Now he stands up and speaks. I think he was giving them conditional permission to begin the stoning. With one caveat. The one without sin can cast the first stone. I want to imagine that what he said was even juicier than that. I want to imagine that he was giving permission to begin the execution to anyone who was without THIS sin.
Because you notice what he does next? And you notice their reaction? He bends down again and starts writing in the dirt again. And “one by one” — did you notice how specific the text is about that? “One by one” the accusers walk away.
Here’s a thought. Admittedly a speculative thought. But there’s a certain logic to it. What he was writing in the sand — one by one — was the names of their girlfriends.
There’s a large lesson here about the magnanimous character of God’s grace and forgiveness. I am not deserving of the gift of grace and the forgiveness of sins, even the repeated sins I can’t seem to shake off. Yet, I am forgiven. Grace abounds!
And there’s a micro lesson for how I get around in the world.
I have a pretty strong sense of justice. Right and wrong matters to me. When I see someone gaming the system, I get angry. When I see another mistreated, my blood boils. And I often find that the faults I am so quick to notice in others are the ones I hate the most in myself. I’m irritated when others are late for meetings, rarely stopping to wonder what might have gone wrong. When I’m late, there’s always a good reason. It’s easy to notice my wife’s irritability and call her out on it. When I’m irritable, I have a good reason for it. Speeding down Roosevelt Road, cutting in and out of the traffic lanes? The other guy’s a jerk and a menace to all of us. I’m late for an appointment.
Apparently grace is not just something to be received, it’s something I’m called to practice.
*You can find the story in John 7:53-8:11. I know it’s not in the most reliable manuscripts. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great story.