A Master of Timing

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

One of the best-described of all charismatic leaders is Jesus, Randall Collins suggests:

About 90 face-to-face encounters with Jesus are described in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Notice what happens:

Jesus is sitting on the ground, teaching to a crowd in the outer courtyard of the temple at Jerusalem. The Pharisees, righteous upholders of traditional ritual and law, haul before him a woman taken in adultery. They make her stand in front of the crowd and say to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law commands us to stone her to death. What do you say?”

The text goes on that Jesus does not look up at them, but continues to write in the dirt with his finger. This would not be unusual; Archimedes wrote geometric figures in the dust, and in the absence of ready writing materials the ground would serve as a chalkboard. The point is that Jesus does not reply right away; he lets them stew in their uneasiness.

Finally he looks up and says: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” And he looks down and continues writing in the dust.

Minutes go by. One by one, the crowd starts to slip away, the older ones first– the young hotheads being the ones who do the stoning, as in the most primitive parts of the Middle East today.

Finally Jesus is left with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightens up and asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers: “No one.” “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go now and sin no more.” (John 8: 1-11)

Jesus is a master of timing. He does not allow people to force him into their rhythm, their definition of the situation. He perceives what they are attempting to do, the intention beyond the words. And he makes them shift their ground.

Hence the two periods of tension-filled silence; first when he will not directly answer; second when he looks down again at his writing after telling them who should cast the first stone. He does not allow the encounter to focus on himself against the Pharisees. He knows they are testing him, trying to make him say something in violation of the law; or else back down in front of his followers. Instead Jesus throws it back on their own consciences, their inner reflections about the woman they are going to kill. He individualizes the crowd, making them drift off one by one, breaking up the mob mentality.


  1. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    Medieval commentators on the Gospel believed that Jesus turned himself invisible in some passages. I will have to look up the citation. At one point there was a crowd that wanted to lynch him, but he “passed by them unseen.”

    I will post about that when time permits. Thanks for your post.

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