jesus Writing

Literature of the Dust

John 8:6: “Jesus stooped down and with his finger wrote on the ground.”

A Mohammedan mosque stands now where once stood Herod’s temple, the scene of my text. Solomon’s temple had stood there, but Nebuchadnezzar thundered it down. Zerubbabel’s temple had stood there, but that had been prostrated. Now we take our places in a temple that Herod built, because he was fond of great architecture, and he wanted the preceding temples to seem insignificant. Put eight or ten modern cathedrals together and they would not equal that structure. It covered nineteen acres. There were marble pillars supporting roofs of cedar, and silver tables on which stood golden cups, and there were carvings exquisite and inscriptions resplendent, glittering balustrades and ornamented gateways. The building of this temple kept ten thousand workmen busy forty-six years.

In that stupendous pile of pomp and glory sat Christ, and a listening throng stood about him, when a wild disturbance took place. A group of men are pulling and pushing along a woman who had committed the worst crime against society. When they have brought her in front of Christ, they ask that he sentence her to death by stoning. They are a critical, merciless, disingenuous crowd. They want to get Christ into controversy and public reprehension. If he say “Let her die,” they will charge him with cruelty. If he let her go, they will charge him with being in complicity with wickedness. Whichever way he does, they would howl at him. Then occurs a scene which has not been sufficiently regarded. He leaves the lounge or bench on which he was sitting and goes down on one knee, or both knees, and with the forefinger of his right hand he begins to write in the dust of the floor, word after word.

But they were not to be diverted or hindered. They kept on demanding that he settle this case of transgression, until he looked up and told them that they might themselves begin the woman’s assassination, if the complainant who had never done anything wrong himself would open the fire. “Go ahead, but be sure that the man who flings the first missile is immaculate.” Then he resumed writing with his finger in the dust of the floor, word after word. Instead of looking over his shoulder to see what he had written the scoundrels skulked away. Finally the whole place is clear of pursuers, antagonists and plaintiffs, and when Christ has finished this strange chirography in the dust, he looks up and finds the woman all alone. The prisoner is the only one of the courtroom left, the judges, the police, the prosecuting attorneys having cleared out. Christ is victor, and he says to the woman: “Where are the prosecutors in this case? Are they all gone? Then I discharge you; go, and sin no more.”

I have always wondered what Christ wrote on the ground. For do you realize that is the only time that Jesus ever did write, so far as we know. I know that Eusebius says that Christ once wrote a letter to Abgarus, the King of Edessa, but there is no good evidence of such a correspondence. The wisest being the world ever saw, and the one who had more to say than any one who ever lived, never writing a book or a chapter or a page or a paragraph or a word on parchment. Nothing but the literature of the dust, and one sweep of a brush or one breath of a wind obliterated that forever.

Among all the rolls of the volumes of the first library founded at Thebes there was not one scroll of Christ. Among the seven hundred thousand books of the Alexandrian Library, which by the infamous decree of Caliph Omar were used as fuel to heat the four thousand baths of the city, not one sentence had Christ penned. Among all the infinitude of volumes now standing in the libraries of Edinburgh, the British Museum or Berlin or Vienna or the learned repositories of all nations, not one word written directly by the finger of Christ. All that he ever wrote he wrote in dust, uncertain, vanishing dust.

My text says he stooped down and wrote on the ground. Standing straight up a man might write on the ground with a staff, but if with his finger he would write in the dust, he must bend clear over. Ay, he must get at least on one knee or he cannot write on the ground. Be not surprised that he stooped down. His whole life was a stooping down. Stooping down from castle to barn. Stooping down from celestial homage to mobocratic jeer. From residence above the stars to where a star had to fall to designate his landing-place. From heaven’s front door to the world’s back gate. From writing in round and silvered letters of constellation and galaxy on the blue scroll of heaven, to writing on the ground in the dust, which the feet of the crowd had left in Herod’s temple.

If in January you have ever stepped out of a prince’s conservatory that had Mexican cacti and magnolias in full bloom, into the outside air ten degrees below zero, you may get some idea of Christ’s change of atmosphere from celestial to terrestrial. How many heavens there are I know not, but there are at least three, for Paul was “caught up into the third heaven.” Christ came down from highest heaven to the second heaven, and down from the second heaven to first heaven, down swifter than meteors ever fell, down amidst stellar splendors that himself eclipsed, down through clouds, through atmospheres, through appalling space, down to where there was no lower depth.

From being waited on at the banquet of the skies, to the broiling of fish for his own breakfast on the banks of the lake. From emblazoned chariots of eternity to the saddle of a mule’s back. From homage of cherubic, seraphic, archangelic, to the paying of sixty-two and one-half cents of tax to Cæsar. From the deathless country to a tomb built to hide human dissolution. The uplifted wave of Galilee was high, but he had to come down before, with his feet, he could touch it; and the whirlwind that rose above the billow was higher yet, but he had to come down before, with his lip, he could kiss it into quiet. Bethlehem a stooping down. Nazareth a stooping down. Death between two burglars a stooping down. Yes, it was in consonance with humiliations that had gone before and with self-abnegations that came after, when on that memorable day in Herod’s temple he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

Whether the words he was writing were in Greek or Latin or Hebrew, I cannot say, for I suppose he knew all those languages. But he is still stooping down, and with his finger writing on the ground; in the winter in letters of crystals, in the spring in letters of flowers, in summer in golden letters of harvest, in autumn in letters of fire on fallen leaves. How it would sweeten up and enrich and emblazon this world, could we see Christ’s caligraphy all over it.

This world was not flung out into space thousands of years ago, and then left to look out for itself. It is still under the divine care. Christ never for a half second takes his hand off of it, or it would soon be a shipwrecked world, a defunct world, an obsolete world, an abandoned world, a dead world. “Let there be light,” was said at the beginning. And Christ stands under the wintry skies and says, “Let there be snowflakes to enrich the earth”; and under the clouds of spring and says, “Come ye blossoms and make redolent the orchards”; and in September, dips the branches in the vat of beautiful colors, and swings them into the hazy air. No whim of mine is this. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Jesus writing on the ground!

If we could see his hand in all the passing seasons, how it would illumine the world! All verdure and foliage would be allegoric, and again we would hear him say as of old, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow”; and we would not hear the whistle of a quail or the cawing of a raven or the roundelay of a brown-thresher, without saying, “Behold the fowls of the air, they gather not into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feedeth them”; and a Dominic hen of the barnyard could not cluck for her brood, but we would hear Christ saying, as of old, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chicks under her wings”; and through the redolent hedges we would hear Christ saying, “I am the rose of Sharon”; and we could not dip the seasoning from the salt-cellar without thinking of the divine suggestion, “Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost its savor, it is fit for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.”

Let us wake up from our stupidity and take the whole world as a parable. Then, if with gun and pack of hounds we start off before dawn, and see the morning coming down off the hills to meet us, we would cry out with the evangelist, “The day-spring from on high hath visited us”; or, caught in a snowstorm, while struggling home, eyebrows and beard and apparel all covered with the whirling flakes, we would cry out with David, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

In a picture gallery of Europe, there is on the ceiling an exquisite fresco, but people having to look straight up, it wearied and dizzied them and bent their necks almost beyond endurance; so a great looking-glass was put near the floor, and now visitors only need to look easily down into this mirror and they see the fresco at their feet. And so, much of all the heaven of God’s truth is reflected in this world as in a mirror, and the things that are above are copied by things around us.

What right have we to throw away one of God’s Bibles, ay, the first Bible he ever gave the race? We talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament, but the oldest Testament contains the lessons of the natural world. Some people like the New Testament so well they discard the Old Testament. Shall we like the New Testament and the Old Testament so well as to depreciate the oldest; namely, that which was written before Moses was put afloat on the boat of leaves which was caulked with asphaltum; or reject the Genesis and the Revelation that were written centuries before Adam lost a rib and gained a wife? No, no; when Deity stoops down and writes on the ground, let us read it. I would have no less appreciation of the Bible on paper that comes out of the paper-mill, but I would urge appreciation of the Bible in the grass, the Bible in the sand-hill, the Bible in the geranium, the Bible in the asphodel, the Bible in the mountains, the Bible in the dust.

Someone asked an ancient king whether he had seen the eclipse of the sun. “No,” said he, “I have so much to do on earth, I have no time to look at heavenly And if our faculties were all awake in the study of God, we would not have time to go much further than the first grass-blade. I have no fear that natural religion will ever contradict what we call revealed religion. I have no sympathy with the followers of Aristotle, who, after the telescope was invented, would not look through it, lest it contradict some of the theories of their great master. I should be glad to put against one lid of the Bible the microscope, and against the other lid of the Bible the telescope.

But when Christ stooped down and wrote on the ground, what did he write? The Pharisees did not stop to examine. The cowards, whipped of their own consciences, fled pell-mell. Nothing will flay a man like an aroused conscience. Dr. Stevens, in his History of Methodism, says that when Rev. Benjamin Abbott of olden times was preaching, he exclaimed: “For aught I know there may be a murderer in this house,” and a man rose in the assemblage and started for the door and bawled aloud, confessing to a murder he had committed fifteen years before. And no wonder these Pharisees, reminded of their sins, took to their heels. But what did Christ write on the ground? The Bible does not state. Yet, as we do not know that Christ ever wrote anything except that once, you cannot blame us for wanting to know what he really did write. But I am certain he wrote nothing trivial or nothing unimportant. And will you allow me to say that I think I know what he wrote on the ground?

I judge from the circumstances. He might have written other things, but kneeling there in the temple, surrounded by a pack of hypocrites, who were a self-appointed constabulary, and having in his presence an offending woman, who evidently was very penitent for her sins, I am sure he wrote two words, both of them graphic and tremendous and reverberating. And the one word was Hypocrisy, and the other word was Forgiveness. From the way these Pharisees and scribes vacated the premises and got out into the fresh air, as Christ, with just one ironical sentence, unmasked them, I know they were first-class hypocrites. It was then as it is now.

The more faults and inconsistencies people have of their own, the more severe and censorious are they about the faults of others. Here they are—twenty stout men arresting and arraigning one weak woman. Magnificent business to be engaged in! They wanted the fun of seeing her faint away under a heavy judicial sentence from Christ, and then, after she had been taken outside the city and fastened at the foot of a precipice, the scribes and Pharisees wanted the satisfaction of each coming and dropping a big stone on her head, for that was the style of capital punishment that they asked for.

Some people have taken the responsibility of saying that Christ never laughed. But I think as he saw those men drop everything, chagrined, mortified, exposed, and go out quicker than they came in, he must have laughed. At any rate, it makes me laugh to read of it. All of these libertines, dramatizing indignation against impurity! Blind bats lecturing on optics! A flock of crows on their way up from a carcass, denouncing carrion! Yes, I think that one word written on the ground that day by the finger of Christ was the awful word, Hypocrisy. But I am sure there was another word in that dust. From her entire manner I am sure that arraigned woman was repentant. She made no apology, and Christ in no wise belittled her sin. But her supplicatory behavior and her tears moved him, and when he stooped down to write on the ground, he wrote that mighty, that imperial word, Forgiveness.

When on Sinai God wrote the law, he wrote it with finger of lightning on tables of stone, each word cut as by a chisel into the hard granitic surface. But when he writes the offense of this woman he writes it in dust so that it can be easily rubbed out; and when she repents of it, oh, he was a merciful Christ! I was reading of a legend that is told in the Far East about him. He was walking through the streets of a city and he saw a crowd around a dead dog. And one man said: “What a loathsome object is that dog!” “Yes,” said another, “his ears are mauled and bleeding.” “Yes,” said another, “even his hide would not be of any use to the tanner.” “Yes,” said another, “the odor of his carcass is dreadful.” Then Christ, standing there, said: “But pearls cannot equal the whiteness of his teeth.” Then the people, moved by the idea that any one could find anything pleasant concerning a dead dog, said: “Why, this must be Jesus of Nazareth!” Reproved and convicted, they went away.

Surely this legend of Christ is good enough to be true. Kindness in all his words and ways and habits. Forgiveness! Word of eleven letters and some of them thrones and some of them palm branches. Better have Christ write close to our names that one word, though he write it in dust, than to have our name cut into monumental granite with the letters that the storms of a thousand years cannot obliterate. Bishop Babington had a book of only three leaves. The first leaf was black, the second leaf red, the third leaf white. The black leaf suggested sin; the red leaf atonement; the white leaf purification. That is the whole story. God will abundantly pardon.

I must not forget to say that as Christ, Stooping down, and with his finger writing on the ground, it is evident that his sympathies are with this penitent woman, and that he has no sympathy with her hypocritical pursuers. Just opposite to that is the world’s habit. Why did not those unclean Pharisees bring one of their own number to Christ for excoriation and capital punishment? No, no; they overlook that in a man which they condemn in a woman. And so the world has had for offending women scourges and objurgation, and for just one offense she becomes an outcast, while for men whose lives have been sodomic for twenty years, the world swings open its doors of brilliant welcome; and they may sit in legislatures and senates and parliaments or on thrones. Unlike the Christ of my text, the world writes a man’s misdemeanor in dust, but chisels a woman’s offense with great capitals upon ineffaceable marble.

For foreign lords and princes, whose names cannot even be mentioned in respectable circles abroad because they are walking lazarettos of abomination, our American princesses of fortune wait, and at the first beck sail out with them into the blackness of darkness forever. And in what are called higher circles of society there is now not only the imitation of foreign dress and foreign manners, but an imitation of foreign dissoluteness. I like an Englishman and I like an American, but the sickest creature on earth is an American playing the Englishman. Society needs to be reconstructed on this subject. Treat them alike, masculine crime and feminine crime. If you cut the one in granite, cut them both in granite. If you write the one in dust, write the other in dust. No, no, says the world; let woman go down and let man go up. What is that I hear splashing into the East river at midnight? and then there is a gurgle as of strangulation, and all is still. Never mind. It is only a woman too discouraged to live. Let the mills of the cruel world grind right on.

But while I speak of Christ of the text and his stooping down writing in the dust, do not think I underrate the literature of the dust. It is the most tremendous of all literature. It is the greatest of all libraries. When Layard exhumed Nineveh he was only opening the door of its mighty dust. The excavations of Pompeii have only been the unclasping of the lids of a volume of a nation’s dust. When Admiral Farragut and his friends, a few years ago, visited that resurrected city, the house of Balbo, who had been one of its chief citizens in its prosperous days, was opened, and a table was spread in that house which eighteen hundred and ten years had been buried by volcanic eruption, and Farragut and his guests walked over the exquisite mosaics and under the beautiful fresco, and it almost seemed like being entertained by those who eighteen centuries before had turned to dust.

Oh, this mighty literature of the dust! Where are the remains of Sennacherib and Attila and Epaminondas and Tamerlane and Trajan and Philip of Macedon and Julius Cæsar? Dust! Where are the heroes who fought on both sides at Chæronea, at Hastings, at Marathon, at Cressy, of the one hundred and ten thousand men who fought at Agincourt, of the two hundred and fifty thousand men who faced death at Jena, of the four hundred thousand whose armor glittered in the sun at Wagram, of the one million men under Darius at Arbella, of the two million six hundred and forty-one thousand men under Xerxes at Thermopylæ? Dust! Where are the guests who danced the floors of the Alhambra or the Persian palaces of Ahasuerus? Dust! Where are the musicians who played and the orators who spoke and the sculptors who chiseled and the architects who built, in all the centuries except our own? Dust! The greatest library of the world, that which has the widest shelves and the longest aisles and the most multitudinous volumes and the vastest wealth the underground library. It is the royal library, the continental library, the hemispheric library, the planetary library, the library of the dust.

And all these library cases will be opened and all these scrolls unrolled and all these volumes unclasped; and as easily as in your library or mine we take up a book, blow the dust off of it and turn over its pages, so easily will the Lord of the Resurrection pick us out of this library of dust every volume of human life, and open it and read it and display it. And the volume will be rebound, to be set in the royal library of the King’s palace, or in the prison library of the self-destroyed. Oh, this mighty literature of the dust! It is not so wonderful after all that Christ chose, instead of an inkstand, the impressionable sand on the floor of an ancient temple, and, instead of a hard pen, put forth his forefinger, with the same kind of nerve and muscle and bone and flesh as that which makes up our own forefinger, and wrote the awful doom of hypocrisy and full and complete forgiveness for repentant sinners, even the worst.

And now I can believe that which I read, how that a mother kept burning a candle in the window every night for ten years, and one night, very late, a poor waif of the street entered. The aged woman said to her, “Sit down by the fire,” and the stranger said, “Why do you keep that light in the window?” The aged woman said: “That is to light my wayward daughter when she returns. Since she went away, ten years ago, my hair has turned white. Folks blame me for worrying about her, but you see I am her mother, and sometimes, half a dozen times a night, I open the door and look out into the darkness and cry, ‘Lizzie!’ ‘Lizzie!’

But I must not tell you any more about my trouble, for I guess, from the way you cry, you have trouble enough of your own. Why, how cold and sick you seem! Oh, my! can it be? Yes, you are Lizzie, my own lost child! Thank God that you are home again!” And what a time of rejoicing there was in that house that night! And Christ again stooped down, and in the ashes of that hearth, now lighted up, not more by the great blazing logs than by the joy of a reunited household, wrote the same liberating words that he had written more than eighteen hundred years ago in the dust of the Jerusalem temple. Forgiveness! A word broad enough and high enough to let pass through it all the armies of heaven, a million abreast, on white horses, nostril to nostril, flank to flank.

T. De Witt Talmage

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