Isaiah 58.1-12; 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10; John 8.1-11
Dust is one of the great biblical images, and for fairly obvious reasons it is a rather underrated one. It is a biblical image we don’t generally think or talk about very much. There are many more attractive images in the bible. But dust is hugely important. In the second chapter of Genesis God forms man out of the dust of the earth, and in the third chapter in response to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, God pronounces the words we will shortly use during the imposition of ashes: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. In the bible, dust is not necessarily something negative. Dust contains a promise: in the hand of God it can be formed into something wonderful.
We also encounter dust in today’s gospel: Jesus bends down and writes in the dust of the earth with his finger.
The passage we heard from John’s gospel is a well-known story, but it presents problems for the biblical scholar. It doesn’t appear to belong to John’s gospel: the language and the subject-matter sound more like Luke, and the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel do not include it. Some might be tempted to argue that it is in some sense not a genuine story of Jesus. The problem with that argument is that other early Christian writings seem to refer to this story, and it fits well with Jesus’ character as we encounter him in others stories. S. Augustine speculated that early Christians had removed the story from John’s gospel because they were worried that their wives might take it as a green light for adultery! Whatever the case, there is no reason to doubt that this is an authentic story of Jesus, even if there is some mystery surrounding its origins.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the fast that is acceptable to God.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
And yet in the scene described in today’s gospel, it is precisely the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil that we find. But Jesus refuses to participate in the finger-pointing, he refuses to take part in the all-too-easy condemnation and humiliation of the woman caught in adultery. Instead of joining in the pointing of the finger at her, he points to the ground. He writes with his finger in the dust of the earth.
What is it that Jesus is doing? On one level it is an expression of disappointment, perhaps even disdain. He is teaching in the Temple, and the religious leaders interrupt him with their finger-pointing. This is little more than a lynch mob; for the woman it is a matter of life and death, but for the religious leaders the life of the woman appears to be of little consequence: the point is rather to find a basis for some allegation against Jesus. The woman is for them simply a means to an end. So they interrupt his teaching, and we can imagine the uproar and kerfuffle that this scene creates, and we can imagine too the despair of the woman. Jesus is trying to proclaim the good news, he is trying to teach the wonderful and beautiful things of the Kingdom of God, and he is interrupted by this terrible scene. He bends down and writes in the dust of the earth; it is a powerful demonstration of his unwillingness to be drawn into the power-games of the religious leaders, and of his disappointment at their response to him.
But I think that there is more that we can see in this writing in the earth. The religious leaders point their fingers at the woman, and their real aim is to be able to point accusatory fingers at Jesus himself. But Jesus points at the dust of the earth. We are reminded of the second chapter of Genesis. God forms the man from the dust of the earth. And so we have in Jesus’ action a powerful rebuke to the actions of the religious leaders. They are engaged in a game of accusation and blame; Jesus by pointing to the dust of the earth is pointing to the common humanity which is shared by the woman and her accusers and Jesus himself.
Jesus’ refusal to play their game does not deter the religious leaders. He bends down to write in the earth, but still they keep on at him. And so he says to them: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. They have failed to understand his physical gesture; in pointing to the dust of the earth, Jesus points to the humanity which the woman and her accusers share, and he points too to the sin which is a part of their lives as well as hers. They do not understand the physical gesture, so he spells it out for them: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. And perhaps now they begin to understand, and it is not surprising that it should be oldest that is the first to leave, since he is presumably the wisest, or at least the one with the most experience of life.
And so Jesus and the woman are left alone. The one who is without sin remains, but he casts no stone. He too shares her humanity, and more than that, he will in the words of S. Paul be made sin who knew no sin, for her sake and for ours. We see once again the extent of Jesus’ identification with the frailty and sinfulness of our human nature.
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
This Lent, we must endeavour to remove from among us the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil. We must instead seek to follow Jesus’ finger, the finger which points to the dust from which we come and the dust to which we will return, the finger which points us to the humanity which we all share.
Reflecting on the dust from which we come and to which we will return, reflecting on the frailty of the human nature we share, will help us to recognise our need to forgive and to be forgiven. It will help us to understand that we have no right to look down on anyone, no right to point the finger at anyone.
Reflecting on the dust from which we come and to which we will return, reflecting on the frailty of the human nature we share, will make us more alert to our neediness and dependence, and it will make us more alert and responsive to the needs of others. This as the prophet Isaiah tells us is the fast the Lord chooses.
Reflecting on the dust from which we come and to which we will return, reflecting on the frailty of the human nature we share, will fill us anew with an overwhelming gratitude that in Jesus God shares our human nature. In Jesus, God shares our human nature to the extent that he falls in the dust on the way to Calvary, that he tastes not only dust but death itself, becoming sin for our sake, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Reflecting on the dust from which we come and to which we will return will fill us anew with hope, as we recognise afresh that the hand of God is able to form from the dust creatures in God’s image.