What was our Lord writing on the ground with his finger? No one really knows but it is an interesting addition that the gospel writer makes to this narrative and it does lead one to wonder. What was he tracing on the ground?
In light of today’s first reading from Isaiah where the Lord proclaims that he alone is the one “who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters,” I can imagine our Lord tracing the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea, because at this moment this is what our Lord is preparing to do – both for the woman caught in adultery and for the mob caught in the cycle of recrimination and violence.
Yes, the woman was caught in sin. We do not know the circumstances, nor the situation and we can honestly wonder, “well, why wasn’t the man involved also brought forward for judgment?”. But there was sin and this woman who sinned is now standing before the only one without sin. Of all, he alone can judge and condemn her. There is judgment but no condemnation. After the people walk away, our Lord asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” In this moment we see lived out the words found in Isaiah, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” The Righteous One has come but not to condemn but rather to give life. This is the amazing grace! He alone has now opened a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters. Mercy is given and divine mercy alone sets the sinner free from the trap of sin.
“We escaped like a bird from the fowler’s net. The net was broken and we escaped; our help is in the name of our Lord…” (Psalm 124:7-8). “…see, I am doing something new!”
But the path through the waters is not just for the woman, it is also for the crowd! They are caught up in the frenzy and blood thirst of a mob. They are clinging to the stones they want to hurl at the woman! They also are trapped in the fowler’s net of sin, violence and death although they do not recognize it. Their trap is not as public as that of the woman. Christ will also do something new for them.
Again, God says through the prophet Isaiah, “In the desert I make a way, in the wastelands, rivers.” The cycle of violence gives no life and to be trapped in that cycle is to be trapped in a lifeless desert! Only God can call forth life in that desert, only God can call forth rivers in that wasteland. So, in his encounter with the demonic frenzy of the mob, Christ – the only one without sin – quietly bends down, traces on the ground and says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus is truth and he alone calls forth truth and the violence of the mob breaks on the truth of who he is. The gospel says, “…they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”
Something new had just happened! The cycle of violence had just been broken by the one who is truth and who is mercy … and he continues to trace on the ground.
Friends, the readings for this Sunday are not circumspect. No one is exempt. Everyone – in one way or another or in many ways – is caught in the fowler’s net. Everyone is trapped – whether recognized, public or not. Where are we before our Lord – the only one without sin, the one who is both truth and mercy. Will we let him do something new? Will we let him open a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters for us?