Sometimes Jesus says the most amazing things. And sometimes he amazes me by saying nothing at all. John 7:53-8:11 is one passage that contains both.
One day, while teaching in the temple, Jesus was approached by a group of scribes and Pharisees, who, John tells us, wanted to test Jesus. As the Contemporary English Version puts it, they brought with them “a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband,” an adulteress caught red-handed. Citing Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, they said to Jesus, The Law of Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say we should do?” And the trap was set.
On the one hand, the law was clear. Someone caught in the act of adultery should be executed. There are not any loopholes through which an adulterer might escape. The “right” thing to do was plainly evident. On the other hand, however, stoning someone to death for a sexual transgression seems wildly disproportionate—even in the first century. Jesus, therefore, was being asked to choose sides in a moral dilemma with treacherous options: either break the Law of Moses or break the law of reason. Either way, his opponents would catch Jesus with his words. Either he would demonstrate remarkable cruelty, or he would publicly advocate ignoring the religious law. No matter what, Jesus would give a wrong answer.
So what did Jesus say in reply to their question? At first, nothing. Instead of answering them at all, he “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” But everyone was watching him! They waited for his reply. He was supposed to say something. He was supposed to pick sides. But he didn’t do it. Refusing to buy in to the urgency of this contrived situation, Jesus stooped down onto the ground and started to play with the dirt. Was he thinking of an answer, or was he disarming his opponents with a delay? The passage tells us that they kept asking for an answer, demanding a response, but Jesus took his time.
Finally, when he was ready, Jesus stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then, as soon as he had finished speaking, he bent back over and began to write in the dirt again. As Jesus stayed there on the ground, the men were forced to confront his words. Rather than answer their question, Jesus had returned the moral dilemma back onto them. In the minutes of silence that followed, the religious leaders had time to examine their consciences. Were they guiltless? What about the man who was found in bed with them woman? Where was he? Why was the sentence of death not being imposed upon him as well? In their silent wonderings, they encountered the fallacy of their own predicament—that moments like this have a clear right answer.
We remember what happened next. All of the men, beginning with the oldest among them, went away one by one until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stood up and said to the adulteress, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No, sir No one.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Sometimes we are presented with moral conundrums. Friends or coworkers or parishioners or patients ask us to help them solve an urgent problem. Usually, they are not trying to test us—at least not on purpose—but they come to us with an unfixable problem that needs fixing right away. I can’t stay married to him, but divorce would shatter our children. I’m pregnant but cannot have another child. I hate my job but don’t know what else to do. In that moment, we are supposed to give them an answer—the right answer. We are supposed to solve their dilemma. And what do we do? Do we embrace the urgency of their situation and charge in to the rescue? Do we jump into their sinking boat and try to paddle with them? Or do we listen and nod and acknowledge their circumstance without trying to fix it? Do we hand the dilemma right back to them, refusing to solve it but offering to support them regardless?
Jesus reminds us that silence is often our best answer. He shows us that even the Son of God did not come to earth in order to solve all of our problems. Our problems are ours, and their problems are theirs. Yes, we support one another in our journey, but usually the only one who can fix our circumstances is we. And, more times than not, the first step we should take in addressing them is to bend over and spend some time playing in the dirt—a quiet and contemplative practice that gives us enough space to confront the reality we face. When the urgencies of life demand our reaction, answers come when we give them enough space to settle on their own.