Restraint of tongue and pen is wise behavior

Published 4:30 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Alan Neale

A recent study has shown that doodling provides stress relief and improves focus. 26 of 44 American Presidents doodled, from Theodore Roosevelt, who doodled animals and children, to Ronald Reagan, who doodled cowboys and football players, and John F. Kennedy, who doodled dominoes. Traditionally, we have thought of these doodles as a sign of distraction — an indication that your mind was not where it was supposed to be. Yet, recent research has shown that doodling is not an enemy of attention; it may in fact be a friend.

Well, in John 8 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery and put on a preemptory ethics trial to trap Jesus. In this story, twice we read “Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground” …doodling or what?

There are a few Gospel stories that that leave persistent questions in my mind. Sometimes I muse that, maybe, there will be a table in heaven to provide the ultimate answer to such questions as:
1. Jesus, when the paralytic was dropped through the roof and you forgave his sins; would you have left him paralyzed if it had not been for the questioning of the Pharisees?
2. Jesus, when the rich young man came to you and then left, did he ever return?
3. Jesus, I know it was a story, but did the elder brother in Luke 15 eventually find reconciliation with his father and younger brother?
4. And, Jesus, when the woman in adultery was brought to you… twice you stooped down and “wrote in the ground” – why did you do this? What did you write?

It is #4 that has been in my thoughts a lot this past week. During morning prayers today, I asked two members of Zion Church about their thoughts. One suggested that Jesus was causing a distraction that allowed him and others to think carefully about their words and actions. Another suggested that Jesus wrote on the ground “You are forgiven”; now this of course applied as much to the accusers as to the accused but, maybe, one was more open than the other?

It has been suggested that Jesus, rather quickly, wrote the Hebrew Scripture text that condemned the woman “taken in adultery”; and those texts included condemnation of the man… so, where was the man? Why this partial accusation?

My response is simpler. St. John tells us that Jesus had his day planned… leaving the Mount of Olives after prayers and heading to the Temple to teach. Suddenly, without warning, the Pharisees drag a woman “taken in adultery” before Jesus and ask for his judgement.

I think that Jesus, remember human as well as divine, was looking for a few moments to reflect, to assume control of the situation. I think that Jesus was refusing to allow others to set his agenda. I think that Jesus was practicing that most wise of behavior – “restraint of tongue and pen”. Remember John Greenleaf Whittier’s wisdom: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’” It might have been different if I had paused to think before I spoke or acted.

I take great comfort that no matter how insidious and constant is the disapproval of self, that Jesus never rushes to condemn but rather creates time to breathe and live in grace.

And I learn again that there are times when I need to pause and not be pressured into word or deed.

So, this side of eternity (and maybe the other side too), I cannot be sure why and how Jesus acted “as he stooped to write on the ground”; but this I know: what He did, He did with love and grace as always for all people.

Alan Neale is the Rector at Zion Episcopal Church in Washington.