Every year on the Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent – the Church gives us one of the longest first readings from the Old Testament from the book of Daniel [read it here]. We heard about this woman Susanna who is set up by these two older men who have malicious and scandalous intent to take advantage of her sexually or to frame her if she refuses to go along. Daniel is stirred up by the Holy Spirit to recognize the evil in the hearts of these men – he’s able to identify how she was set up by these two, he proves their evil intent and “thus innocent blood was spared that day.” These two end up suffering the exact punishment they tried to inflict on her as they end up dead for their crimes. Just hearing it, thousands of years later, there’s something incredibly fulfilling about the whole story. This incredibly unfair, unjust situation, perpetrated by evil hypocrites by these powerful men who seem to have the upper hand . . . a hero swoops in and saves the day. All that could’ve made it perfect would have been if both David and Susanna were unmarried and rode off into the sunset together. It’s like a Hallmark movie – well except with the brutal capital punishment part of the two trying to entrap Susanna – not sure if that would make the cut – I’m not a regular viewer of Hallmark movies. Maybe a Lifetime Movie… I have seen those because I was forced to by my mother, which is a whole other story and I think a Lifetime movie would like seeing those two guys getting killed for trying to set up Susanna, but I digress.
The point is, for a majority of us: our sense of justice, our definition of what is right is satisfied in this story from the Old Testament. Innocent blood is not shed. Evil blood is shed. Those two got what was coming to them.
Yet that reading, coupled with this Gospel, in this time of Passiontide (the last two weeks of Lent- where the Passion, the Cross of Jesus becomes more front and center in our thoughts and reflection as we as a Church journey closer into Holy Week) kind of undermines that thinking… it’s meant to jolt us out of that human satisfaction. Because what the Passion, the Cross of Jesus demonstrates is that human justice is no longer enough… it was and has been insufficient to God. It was acceptable with the broken order of a broken sinful world… But that’s about to be upended by Jesus.
Because in the Gospel – it’s easy for us to assume that the reason these two readings are coupled together is saying oh, here’s another woman who is about to die at the hands of blood thirsty men. And in this version, like Daniel, Jesus comes to the woman’s defense. But there’s a significant difference. The woman in the gospel is actually guilty of what she’s being accused of doing. Yes, some like to interrupt at this point and ask “but where’s the man she committed adultery with, shouldn’t he be held responsible too…” which is a very good point – and capital punishment for adultery would make modern ears wildly and incredibly uncomfortable – both of which are good things for a worthwhile discussion for another time and place. But let’s stay focused here.
Unlike Susanna, the woman in the gospel caught in adultery is not innocent. Human justice at this time and place in history demanded the guilty would deserve punishment, deserved death. Now Jesus does not excuse what wrong this woman has done – which is an important point to underline lest people misuse this whole Gospel as Jesus giving us free license to give into whatever human desire we want, succumb to any temptation and then not feel guilty about it. That’s not what happens. Jesus calls that sin out and tells the woman clearly – Go and from now on do not sin any more. So yes Jesus is a fan of justice and a really big fan of not sinning… he talks about that quite a lot actually.
But, even more – Jesus is about Mercy. Jesus is about saving humanity, Jesus is about saving all sinners.
So had Jesus been on that scene of Daniel and Susanna, he would have been very similar in coming to the woman’s defense, calling out the evil intent on behalf of these two men who have been lustful, lying hypocrites. But the important difference is He would have also saved them as well. He would not have gone along with the human desire for immediate justice.
Because, the uncomfortable reality for us, is that Jesus loves these two sexual deviant, power hungry men just as much as He loves Susanna, He loves the adulterous woman (and the man she was sleeping with wherever he might be) as much as He loves the men wanting to stone and kill her.
And that upsets things. That upsets people. We want Him to take a side… our side preferably – especially when we know we are right… Not only doesn’t He do that, even worse, He holds up a mirror to every single one of us. “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone” He says. Woahhh – we argue… apples and oranges Jesus, we’re talking about her sin, we’re talking about what they did… that’s what we want fixed. That’s what we want addressed… We can deal with my sins, my issues later.
When? When there’s not a blood thristy crowd around us pointing out our failures? When we can appeal for understanding? When we have a loving, forgiving and merciful judge to plead that case before… who somehow we want and expect to be above that human need for satisfaction? That has to be divine. Exactly. Which is the point.
The immensity of this confrontation between human and divine justice is what we’re being invited into as we journey into Passiontide these last two weeks of Lent. And we find we’re not mere observers, but active participants of the dramatic action that occurred over 2,000 years ago but transcends time and space. It’s a story that unfolds in each and everyone of our lives each and every day. It’s our story. Jesus lovingly shows us that thin, thin line within each and everyone of our hearts. The razor edge that we find ourselves on far too often struggling with, being tempted between good and evil. Jesus has come not to just defeat this “evil” that we like to imagine as some nameless, faceless foe that is conveniently on the opposite team that me and you are on (since we presume we’re on Jesus’ team). More urgently, Jesus is looking to defeat the evil that is within each and everyone of our hearts. Looking to transform those human hearts into one after His own Sacred Heart. It is then, when we let go of our false sense of righteousness and identify ourselves as the men setting the innocent woman up, when we see ourselves as the adulterous woman. It’s then, that we’re thankful for Jesus, our merciful judge, our loving savior who is always giving us another chance.