Summary: There is nothing in-between, no middle ground. It’s God or nothing. So let’s follow St. Paul’s advice and count everything other than the grace and peace of Christ as nothing.
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2019
Finger of God; Finger of Priest
Our Lord Jesus was constantly in conflict with the Jewish religious authorities of His day, both Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were observers of every minute law–even making lay people adhere to the regulations laid down by Moses for the priests. They were often offended by the attitudes and practices of Jesus and His disciples–picking grain on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, performing acts of mercy on the Sabbath. They refused to see Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath, let alone of their lives. But the act of a desperate woman, perhaps a widow attaching herself to a married man so she could feed her children, caught in adultery gave them what they believed a perfect chance to skewer this false Messiah on the horns of a dilemma. Forgive the woman and He’d look like an enabler of law-breaking. Stone the woman–as the law demanded–and He’d offend against His own principle of mercy.
Of course, Jesus found the perfect middle course–ask the old hypocrites to cast the first stone only if they were guiltless of offending against God’s Law. And so the woman survived, and perhaps repented, and maybe even became a disciple of Jesus, one of the women who took care of Him and His disciples. But I want to focus on the smallest element in the story–Jesus writing in the dirt with His finger.
We don’t know what Jesus was writing in the dirt. I believe that He was writing the text of the Ten Commandments, because the fellows with the rocks slunk away, one by one, starting with the oldest. The first time we see in the Scriptures anybody writing with a finger, we read this: “God gave to Moses. . .the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Ex 31:18). And we might recall that right after Moses received those blessed commandments, written out of the mercy of God, Moses went down the mountain and found the Israelites worshiping a false god and getting drunk and committing adultery.
The second time we see a finger in the Scriptures, it is the finger of the priest that is acting. If the priest or the people sin, they are to sacrifice a bull. The priest uses his finger to place the blood on the altar. The result, Leviticus records, is that the sin is forgiven.
There’s one more unforgettable use of the word “finger” in the OT, and that is in the Book of Daniel. According to the Scriptures, the Babylonian king Belshazzar “made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden and silver vessels which had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Immediately the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lamp stand; and the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” Daniel, the Hebrew prophet, was summoned when all the Babylonian wise men couldn’t decipher the writings, and he told the truth: the king had desecrated the vessels dedicated to the true God, and “praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath” had been ignored or even mocked. So Belshazzar would lose his kingdom and die. And so he did. The finger writing on the wall was a story familiar to the men holding the rocks, so the finger writing in the dirt could not be ignored.
The challenge given to the woman after she was saved from physical death is the same one we get, directly or by implication, each time we confess our sins: “go in peace and sin no more.” We are warriors in a holy war during this phase of our lives. God and His angels and we saints who are still being transformed from sinners are arrayed against a weaker but fearsome foe. Satan and his minions and humans who have bought into their lies are fighting a losing battle, yes, but they are fighting dirty. They enlist the culture, the media, the celebrities to encourage us to live lives of selfishness and excess. When we are prompted to pray and fast and help the poor, they distract us with a million tiny pleasures and spread lies like “god helps those who help themselves” to keep us focused on ourselves.