Sermon: What Did Jesus Write in the Sand?

“What Did Jesus Write in the Sand?”
John 8: 1-11
RUMC 16 July 2017
Pete Schilling

This year I am reading my way through my “Bible in A Year,” each day reading another set of Scripture passages. So comes May 14th: I am reading the familiar story in John about the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. It’s the one where Jesus says to the Holy priests and followers, “Let those without sin cast the first stone.”

I think that we all are familiar with this story; however, there is a mystery within the story told by John. I became captivated by Jesus scribbling something in the sand. Yet, this Gospel story doesn’t tell us what He wrote. So, I decided to research other writings and scholars’ thoughts.

Here is John’s passage:

…Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

There are many versions of this bible passage on Youtube. Movies put you in the scene, don’t they?  Watching them, I felt like one of the crowd holding a stone in my hand ready to throw. By the way, I know why people died from stoning; a better term might be ‘rock-ing’.  The stones were large pieces of granite.

Story Summary:  The Gospel tells us that Jesus had been to the Mount of Olives, no doubt praying and now He was in the temple teaching.  The Scribes and the Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus at The Temple and accused her there! Ladies, you will find it interesting that only the woman is brought to be stoned; for the Hebrew law required that BOTH parties to adultery be stoned.

The Scribes had “TAKEN” a woman caught in adultery and were attempting to SHAME HER by putting her on public display. Taken – meaning they had followed this woman to the man’s house, watched the act being done; then grabbed her from the bed and brought her to Jesus. They wanted both to prosecute the woman and to entrap Jesus at the same time.

But Jesus didn’t speak…He just wrote on the ground; so they “continued to ask Him.”

Then Jesus writes again. They see, maybe even sense something… and then they leave

Typically, we focus on the Salvation part of this story – the forgiving of the accused woman. But today, I’d want us to look at the religious men who are accusing the woman, what Jesus did (or perhaps, didn’t do), and the woman saved from stoning.

The Religious Men:
Jesus had been teaching in the courtyard of the temple for days. Word of His miracles and healings had gotten back to the Pharisees. He continued to break some of the religious rules written by the Pharisees as He performed many healing acts. Perhaps even more importantly, He has become a “thorn” in the side of the legalistic temple leaders. They tried to get their temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards failed to carry out the orders. So, they decide to bring a “cut and dry” case before Jesus – a woman caught in the act of adultery.

They literally take this woman from a man’s bed early that morning and drag her to the Temple courtyard where Jesus was teaching.

The men shout, “We found this woman in bed with a man. The laws say to stone her. What do you say, rabbi.”  These Pharisees weren’t coming to Jesus to interpret the Law. They knew that her penalty was death by stoning. They intended to corner Jesus into a clear “yes” or “no” answer. They wanted to trap him into saying something they could use against him.

However Jesus said neither “yeh” nor “neigh” but did something completely different from what those religious people were expecting. After some considerable time, He stood up and said to them, “Here’s my answer: Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.”

Then he stooped down once more, writing on the ground, oblivious to the questioning surrounding Him.

What did Jesus respond? The mostly “Silent Conversation.”
This story shows us a different side, a different response style of Jesus. He knows the religious laws of the Pharisees; He knows the laws of Moses; He is outside in the Temple courtyard teaching once more.

However, instead of responding verbally to the challenge put before Him by the Pharisees, He says nothing, just silence.  He was sitting on the steps, teaching, when they brought in the accused woman.  As they ask Jesus should they stone this woman, He doesn’t respond directly to the question. Instead, He takes his finger and writes something in the dirt beside Him. So not getting a response, they “continue to ask Him.”

The only thing which Jesus said in response was, “Let those without sin cast the first stone.” Then he returns to sitting on the steps and writes a second time in the sand. One sentence, one powerful challenge! After some time, all the men leave the courtyard dropping their shards of rock as they depart.

What did He write?!
Pause Button
: One of my readings says that Jesus hit the “Pause button.”  I like that mental image. Verse 8 of the Scripture says that, “Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger, as though he did not hear.” No, He heard them. Instead, He chose not to answer with a quick legalistic response knowing what the law required. Perhaps, because he saw it was a very zealous crowd with stones in their hands ready to start circling the woman and pelting her, he simply “paused”– leaning to one side and drawing lines in the dirt.

But the million dollar question raised by hundred of scholars and regular worshippers like us is this: What did Jesus write there in the dirt?

Was it a sharp response to the Pharisees? Was it his response about the woman accused? Was he going to ignore the charge against the woman and simply return with his teaching to the crowd? What was written in the sand??? We simply do NOT know.

If I was the movie director creating this scene, I would have taken liberty at this point and gone off script (meaning the Bible verse). I would have shown them looking down into what Jesus had written, I believe it was each man’s sins:

  1. Anger
  2. Prejudice
  3. Jealousy
  4. Deceit
  5. Hate
  6. Corruption
  7. Slander

In my director’s version, each man looked at His words on the ground, dropped his stone and walked out, one by one.

The J B Phillips N.T. version tells it this way:
“And when they heard what He said, they were convicted by their own consciences and went out, one by one, beginning with the eldest until they had all gone.”

What comes to mind is Jesus’ teaching about criticism of others, read earlier from Luke:
41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Maybe they saw their own failing at that time – maybe Jesus wrote those down as the accusers passed by – maybe it was simply their own conscience. But, one by one, they dropped their stones and turned away.

The Woman:
We don’t know who this woman was. And for this story, she remained nameless and disappeared at the end, running out from the courtyard.

After all the accusers left, only Jesus and the woman remained. Than getting up, He asked her where have all her accusers had gone? Is there no one left to condemn her? With that, He says to her these two important charges:

  1. I don’t condemn you
  2. Go and leave your life of sin behind.

Forgiveness with a charge to repent and stop

Our Take Away:
! The mostly “Silent Conversation” that Jesus had with those present was more powerful that any words He could speak.  The only words that Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees were, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” – John 8:7  Yet so much more was understood.

  • He communicated that He was not interested in accusations.
  • He communicated that He was not interested in arguing and debating.

Jesus taught us that…

  1. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore accusers (background noise)
  2. Silence can be deafening! Eventually they will run out of things to say.
  3. We are to love even the broken.

Closing:  This morning’s story isn’t about Laws and Punishments. Rather it’s about compassion and forgiveness.  We find many times that we are quick to judge a situation or condemn people someone has told us about. We find it easy to agree to someone else’s summation of an incident. Why do we look for the bad first and not the good?

In the story, the only one who was compassionate was Jesus. The people in the crowd dropped their stones and walked away simply because Jesus convicted them of all their sins. They didn’t change their opinion of this woman. Likely later, they still would be saying that, “she should have been stoned to death.”

But Jesus would forgive her. Jesus would take away her shame and guilt later when He goes to the Cross.

In her poem, “The Land of Beginnings Again,” Louisa Fletcher describes with longing a place, where mistakes have been forgotten, wrongs have been forgiven, and misunderstandings laughed away.

A place where people we have wronged welcome us like a dear friend. A place where griefs and heartaches are left far behind. A place filled with kindness and fellowship and love. When we listen to that poem we may say to ourselves, “Yes, wouldn’t such a place, such a “Land of Beginning Again” be wonderful! How we’d like to be there! How we wish it were more than the imaginings of a poet.”

Well, the amazing news is, we have been promised just such a place. We have been promised a “Land of Beginning Again” that is even more wonderful than the poet described. Listen to these words from the 21st chapter of the book of Revelation:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.. and God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “see, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:1, 3b-5a)

Ref: Book of Life
When we get to Heaven, it’s not going to be St. Peter who greets us at the gates. It will be Jesus himself. Let me read several other verses from Revelation 20 & 21.

Revelation 20:12
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”

Revelation 21:27
“Nothing impure will ever enter it [meaning the Holy City], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Last words in concluding:
Imagine you are in the crowd at the temple. You hear the Chief Pharisee charge the woman and ask, in effect, that she be stoned to death.  Where are you standing? Are you standing with the others ready to condemn this woman, or are you standing behind Jesus asking for mercy, forgiveness and kindness?

I believe that there is a “Book of Life.” Maybe, just maybe, it and other books have a record of all my actions and decisions.  What do I want recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life about Pete Schilling? What do you want your record to say? Amen


The Land of Beginning Again
by Louisa Fletcher

I wish that there were some wonderful place Called the Land of Beginning Again. Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches And all of our poor selfish grief Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door and never put on again.

I wish we could come on it all unaware, Like the hunter who finds a lost trail; And I wish that the one whom our blindness had done The greatest injustice of all Could be there at the gates like an old friend that waits For the comrade he’s gladdest to hail.

We would find all the things we intended to do But forgot, and remembered too late, Little praises unspoken, little promises broken, And all the thousand and one Little duties neglected that might have perfected The day for one less fortunate.

It wouldn’t be possible not to be kind In the Land of Beginning Again, And the ones we misjudged and the ones whom we grudged their moments of victory here, Would find in the grasp of our loving hand-clasp More than penitent lips could explain…

So I wish that there were some wonderful place Called the Land of Beginning Again, Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches, And all of our poor selfish grief Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door And never put on again.

Nabu Press, 2011