From the Fourth Gospel:
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. . . . And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 8:6b,8 (NRSV) – December 30, 2013.)
What did he write? What did he write the first time? What did he write the second? I have heard many speculative answers to this question, but the truth is that no one knows. And I tend to think it really doesn’t matter. I find myself in the company of John Calvin and others who have suggested that Jesus was merely doodling. This group of interpreters believe that by doing so Jesus was showing either utter contempt for the accusers or a calm lack of anxiety in the situation. Calvin was of the first opinion; I hold to the second.
In the past several years, under the influence of family systems therapists and theorists, most notably Rabbi Edwin Friedman with the 1985 publication of his book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, many clergy have sought to develop the ability to be a “nonanxious presence.” This, says Friedman, is someone who can demonstrate emotional clarity, who can separate while still remaining connected, who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others.
The automatic reaction of most of us (which the scribes and Pharisees in this story certainly exhibit) is to fill what seems to be empty emotional space with busy-ness, to plan and schedule our days, to keep busy and demonstrate a purpose, to have some sort of criteria against which to evaluate and judge both situations and people, and to exercise that judgment whether we actually need to or not!
In the midst of the emotional turmoil around him, Jesus just doodled. He waited it out. Whether he wrote anything of meaning, we cannot tell from the text. So let me add my speculation . . .
I think, if he wrote anything, it was not the names of prostitutes visited by the accusers, nor their own names, nor the list of their many sins, nor the Ten Commandments, nor the requirements set out in Leviticus for the proper conduct of legal proceedings against adulterers, all of which have been suggested by various interpreters and scholars. No, I don’t think he was writing anything for the benefit of the unruly crowd. I suggest two other possibilities . . . .
The first would be something for the benefit of the woman. Perhaps the admonition from the Psalms: “When you are disturbed . . . be silent.” (Ps. 4:4) Or another: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps. 46:10)
The second possibility would be something written for himself, a recollection perhaps of the story of Elijah in the First Book of Kings, a reminder that the Spirit of God was not found in the turmoil of wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:12)
In any event, in this season of the Incarnation, this story of Jesus’ patient doodling, his calm in the midst of turmoil, reminds us “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.