3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." (Jn 8:3-11)
I know what you really want to learn is: What did Jesus write on the ground? I’m sorry, but I don’t know. What I do know is, however, v.7: Jesus only allows the sinless to condemn others. In this crowd of Pharisees and Scribes and other people, no one would identify as sinless. Not even one. Somehow, as a result, even the Lord of heaven and earth did not condemn her.
The Gospels give very little insight into Jesus’ emotions. One thing noticeable, though, is that Jesus always got angry at hypocrites – and a hypocrite seems to have been a sinner who condemned others. Let’s look at a few examples.
1. Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Mt 7:1-5)
11 And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, "Woman, you are freed from your infirmity." 13 And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day." 15 Then the Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" 17 As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame. (Lk 13:11-17)
In the first example, from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes His listeners to judge no one; His logic is that our own sins make us incapable of seeing another person’s sin. That is, judgment is an assessment of a person’s heart and will – we have no idea what is going on in another’s heart or will. God alone knows. In the second example, Jesus is admonishing a religious leader who condemned Jesus for doing good on the Sabbath. The leader was put to shame, however, by Jesus’ clear reply.
For the ultimate condemnation of hypocrisy by Jesus, see Mt 23:13-36; read about it HERE. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Judaism, were exactly hypocrites – they condemned while they themselves were guilty of the very things they condemned in others.
What then do we learn? First, hypocrisy made Jesus angry. Other sins did not make him angry; in our text above, a woman who was caught in adultery only led Him to mercy and gentleness. We who ask God for mercy must be generous in our mercy to others, not only to those who wrong us, but to all who do wrong. I do wrong. You do wrong. Our only hope is mercy. So show mercy. Second, we learn that we have no capability to see the wrong in others, because we cannot see the heart. I have my own particular sins, and I know them and I try to stop, yet I still do them. Likewise, you have yours. My heart desires the living God, but I’m just not very good at getting at Him.
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:15-25)
St. Paul here explains that we may want to do good, but we are sometimes drawn to do bad. The reason why is perhaps a job for the neuroscientist, but it is a fact. And so how can we judge another, when we don’t understand what led them to sin, or what they really wanted to do in their heart of hearts? Perhaps more importantly, why would we judge another? It’s because I want to place myself above others, as their moral king. I am superior; they are inferior. In so doing, I have made myself a little god. I have fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the one that tricked Adam & Eve. Jesus died to save us from that sin; and so, this sin makes Jesus angry.
There is no way out of sin, not myself, nor others. As St .Paul says above, thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord. He alone is the way out of this. Not that He will stop us from sinning, but that He will forgive us our sins which is salvation indeed.
P.S. As you’re reading this on your computer or device, I assume you also engage in social media. A rather powerful form of this judgmental hypocrisy is called virtue signaling. These are the posts where we make some statement of moral goodness, typically in the form of condemning someone we claim is bad. We do so to curate a public image of goodness, at the bad guy’s expense. Let’s resolve now to stop doing this, with the help of God’s grace.
P.P.S. But what of Jesus writing on the ground with His finger? Note that the Pharisees contextualize the woman's adultery by referring to the Law of Moses, the stone tablets which God Himself wrote (cf. Ex 24:12). Also note that Jesus does this twice, bookending His essential phrase between them: this is a new law of God. He who wrote the old Law of Moses wrote this law as well (cf. St. Bede).