Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent
DN 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 or DN 13: 41C-62
PS 23: 1-3A, 3B-4, 5, 6
JN 8: 12-20 or JN 8:1-11
We can imagine the story of Jesus turning out like that of Susanna. There are many similarities after all. Like her, Jesus is set up by the elders of the people. Like Susanna, he is subjected to a sham trial. Both are condemned to die for crimes they did not commit. Both are patently innocent.
The main difference is, of course, the way the stories end. Yet even here we could imagine Jesus’ story turning out differently. What if – in place of young Daniel – Peter or John or James played the hero and cried out to the people, “Are you such fools, to condemn a man without clear evidence?” The momentum of the crowd would shift at this rebuke. Perhaps they would turn on the Jewish and Roman leaders. Certainly Jesus would be released. “Thus was innocent blood spared that day.” We could imagine that, right?
The story of Susanna has been read during Lent since ancient times because of its many resonances with the Passion of Jesus. The real difference between these stories is the difference between the happy ending of human myths and tragedy of the human condition. The Gospels present the stark truth about human nature, a truth through which all other stories must be read.
We’d like to think that Susanna is also true, that is simply depicts another side of our humanity. There is evil, but justice prevails. The innocent suffer, but they are in the end vindicated. The guilty are ultimately punished in this world black-and-white moral world. The Gospel story is unique among all human stories (even some stories in the Bible) precisely because it reveals the innocence of the criminal. The man who everyone believed was guilty received what everyone believed he deserved – death. In this light, Jesus should not be compared to chaste Susanna, but rather to the lecherous elders who seduced her, the criminals who suffer and die.
Reading the story of Susanna, it’s easy for us to put ourselves in the place of Susanna the victim or Daniel the hero. Even the bovine crowd in the Susanna story eventually finds itself on the side of right. What is most difficult is for us to recognize ourselves in the dirty old men. To cast ourselves as the perpetrators. The ones condemned to die. The logic of the cross compels us to see Christ both in Susanna and in her accusers.
The Passion of Jesus confronts us with the uncomfortable truth that we, like those elders, are the executioners of the innocent. In our efforts to hide the less attractive parts of ourselves, the dirty secrets, the sinful habits, we crucify someone else, casting the blame on them. Jesus calls us to face the truth about ourselves: we are unloving, yet always loved; sinful, but always already forgiven. Yes, we commit “crimes,” but no, we do not “deserve” to die. And neither does anyone else. This is the truth that Jesus says will make us free (John 8:32). Only by recognizing it can our violence be stopped and the cycle of blame and guilt come to end. A world free from judgement, sin, and death – can you imagine that?