"He wrote with his finger on the ground" (Jn 8:6).

We find ourselves before Jesus Christ who writes with his finger, the "finger of God" and, together with his word, wants to engrave with fire in the hearts of those men the law of mercy.

Omnes-May 14, 2019-Reading time: 4 minutes

Every year, in the Gospel reading of the Fifth Sunday of Lent of year C (or in years A and B, on Monday of the same week), the episode of the adulterous woman is proclaimed (Jn 8:1-11). We all marvel at the overwhelming effect of the attitude of Jesus, who goes from being accused to being the Judge of mercy, whether of the scribes and Pharisees or of the sinful woman. And we also feel the impulse and the invitation of Jesus to examine our own conduct before judging the conduct of others. In these brief paragraphs, we will limit ourselves to reflect a little on Jesus' gesture: "I was writing with my finger on the floor.".

Facts and words

The episode is framed within a section that reports the activity of Jesus in Jerusalem during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. In a somewhat unexpected way, the people (and also the reader of the Gospel) encounter this episode, which interrupts Jesus' preaching in the Temple to all the people (cf. 8:2).

Focusing on the episode in particular and looking at it as a whole, we see, as in so many other episodes (whether of healing or conversion), that Jesus acts by combining deeds and words. In fact, this is a fundamental principle of God's salvific plan, as enunciated by the Church's magisterium: "This plan of revelation is realized in deed and word. [gesta et verba] [gesta et verba intrinsically connected with each other, so that the works performed by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the doctrine and deeds signified by the words, and the words, for their part, proclaim the works and clarify the mystery contained in them." (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, n. 2). 

In this case, Jesus surprises us by combining the fact of bending down twice to write with his finger on the ground, and between those two gestures, standing up, saying a sentence addressed to the woman's accusers, who intended to compromise him in order to accuse him: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.". This synthesis provokes an unexpected effect: the accusers become accused by Judge Jesus and acknowledge their guilt, "slipping away one by one, starting with the oldest." (8, 9). And they both remained: with unsurpassable words of St. Augustine, misera et misericordiaJesus, alone before the woman, absolved her of her guilt, inviting her to sin no more. We could say that while those men surprised the woman, Jesus, alone before the woman, absolved her of her guilt, inviting her to sin no more. "in flagrant adultery" (8, 4), Jesus surprised her in "blatant remorse".

The finger of God

Let us now focus on the gesture: it is significant that the narrator has wanted to express himself by saying "he wrote with his finger"

In the third plague of Egypt, we are told that "Aaron stretched out his hand and with the staff struck the dust of the ground; and gnats appeared and attacked both man and beast. All the dust of the ground became gnats throughout the land of Egypt.". After the failed attempt of the magicians to do the same, they themselves "they said to Pharaoh, 'It is the finger of God.'" (Ex 8:13,15). 

It is one of the so-called "anthropomorphisms" with which Scripture expresses the divine action using the members of the human body (others are: arm of God, hand). The psalmist says that the heavens are the work of "the fingers of God" (cf. Ps 8:4). Perhaps the best known episode in which we see the fingers of God at work is the writing of the Law on the tablets: "When He had finished speaking with Moses on the mountain of Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone written by the finger of God." (Ex 31:18). A little further on, the hagiographer insists on the divine origin of the tablets: "They were God's workmanship and the writing was God's writing engraved on the tablets.". The same in Dt 9, 10.

In the New Testament, Jesus himself, after expelling a mute demon and in the face of the attitude of those who do not recognize the divine origin of exorcism, uses this expression: "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Lk 11:20). Clearly, Jesus is hinting to them who He is.

The finger of Christ

In the episode of the adulteress, we are no longer before an anthropomorphism, a way of speaking of God's action in the world, nor even before the word of Jesus himself who speaks of the "finger of God". We are before the same God made man who writes with his human finger. 

We do not care so much about what he could have written. We can say that it is useless to solve it, since the evangelist does not tell us. Even so, here it would be opportune to remember that the prophet Jeremiah, in his prayer to God, says: "O Lord, the hope of Israel, those who forsake you fail; those who turn away from you are written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water." (17, 13). Perhaps those men, seeing Jesus writing on the ground, remembered the words of the prophet and recognized their sin.

We find ourselves before Jesus Christ who writes with his finger, the "finger of God" and, together with his word, "sharper than a double-edged sword [...] that judges the desires and intentions of the heart."He wants to engrave with fire in the hearts of those men the law of mercy. That law already announced by the Lord through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah: "I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer will they have to teach one another, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest - the oracle of the Lord - when I forgive their guilt and remember their sins no more." (Jer 31:33-34).


We could conclude that the combination of the gesture of Jesus Christ writing on the ground with his finger and his sharp words completely changes the scene: at the beginning, a woman abandoned to the fate of ruthless accusers who are looking for an excuse to accuse the Master; at the end, everything ends with the disappearance of those men who begin to recognize their sins and the woman who leaves free of her guilt after listening to the only one who can forgive sins, Jesus, the merciful Judge.

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