Blaise Pascal once said, “Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Through history, we know it is probably true: sacrificing humans, waging wars, persecuting heretics, burning witches, terrorizing infidels. We heard about it in the Crusades, Inquisition, and holy wars; we experienced it in the attacks of 9-11.
Among the Gospel stories is one in which some scribes and Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman who is caught in the act of adultery. These religious people intend to kill her by throwing rocks. They justify their action by the law of Moses which taught that women like that should be stoned to death because it is what God commanded; and, intending to trap Jesus, they wanted to know what He thought. What Jesus thought is that it is not what God commanded at all. They got it wrong because Moses got it wrong, at least at first attempt. Though Moses deserves partial credit for bringing God’s message and law to earth as a means of grounding us, he can’t receive full credit until Jesus completes what he started centuries before.
Jesus strangely responds to their violent brutality. He goes down to the ground and starts writing in the dirt with His finger. Because it is from the dirt that humanity was initially formed, He attempts to keep them grounded. Stranger still, after inviting the one among them who is without sin to cast the first rock, He goes down to the earth a second time and begins writing a second time. It’s the only time that Jesus ever wrote anything, yet no one knows what He wrote. For centuries, theologians have wondered why Jesus, using His finger, wrote in the dirt and why He wrote twice.
Though some speculate that He was listing the sins of those present who were holding stones, we’ll never know. Recent scholarship reminds us that when Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the finger of God came down to earth to write them in stone. When he descended, carrying the rock tablets, Moses caught the people in the act of idolatry—even worse than adultery in their time and culture. In a fit of self-righteous, stone-holding, law-quoting rage, he shattered the Commandments. Moses was the first person to break the Ten Commandments, physically turning them into rocks and stones, thinking that violence should be done to appease God. But he misunderstood God’s purpose—at least initially. So, he had to ascend the mountain a second time. And a second time, the hand of God reached down to the earth to ground us; and with His finger, God wrote a second time.
Jewish tradition teaches that on the holy mountain, God gave Moses a stern warning without even saying a word. His message was: “Don’t stone people with God’s word or commands; it is not what they are for. And don’t do violence in God’s name; it is not what He is about.” That is why, centuries later, in the presence of religious, self-righteous, rock-holding, law-quoting creatures of the dirt, who are eager to violently stone someone, Jesus stoops down to the earth and, a second time, stretches out His hand and writes with His finger. In silence, He delivers that same divine message. When they receive the stern warning, they depart one after the other, walking away from the only one who is without sin.
Jesus reminds us throughout history, and again today, that we should not misuse religion. God’s law is for love not for violence.