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Monday, fifth week of Lent

March 14, 2005

Blessed Monday!

Daniel 13: 1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 (Susanna vindicated of charges of adultery)
Psalm 23 “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me”
+John 8:1-11 (the woman caught in the act of adultery)

In accusing the adulteress, they accused themselves.

We see this idea played out in two different ways today. First we read the story of the beautiful, virtuous Susanna, who became the prey of the lust of two elders of Israel. They committed adultery with her in their hearts first (Matthew 5:28, Daniel 13:8). Then they stalked her, trapped her, and threatened her with rape. When she resisted, they accused her of the very sin she had resisted. As she was being led to execution, the Spirit of the Lord inspired young Daniel to protest and order a cross-examination of the accusers, which brought their lie to light. They themselves stood accused and suffered the penalty they had tried to bring upon Susanna.

We know less about the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. Whether she was a victim or an instigator in the act in which she was surprised, she was certainly a victim in the Pharisees’ plot to trap Jesus. She was the bait. Were He to approve of her execution, His mercy would be questioned. Were He to spare her, He would be in violation of the Law of Moses. Jesus disregarded the question, bending down to trace on the ground with His finger. We don’t know if He was writing or just doodling, but an interesting cross-reference points to Jeremiah 17:13: “…those who turn away from Thee shall be written in the earth.” When the Pharisees persisted in their questioning, Jesus told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone. Perhaps these men, so well-versed in Scripture, put two and two together. Even if Jesus hadn’t yet written their names in the dust, His tracing on the ground may’ve brought that verse to mind. They knew they themselves had turned away from the Lord. Did they really want Him to expose them–especially as He bent down again to trace in the dust? Further, according to Deuteronomy 17:7, those who witness the crime are to be the first to cast a stone. Who would’ve been more likely to witness the crime than the man with whom the adulteress had lain? Even if he were not present as one of her accusers, had not those who discovered them committed adultery with her in their hearts by gazing lustfully on her shame? Were the witnesses without sin, that they could cast the first stone? Indeed, what had become of the adulterer? The same Law that these men pretended to be upholding commanded that the man and woman caught in the act of adultery both be killed (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22). In letting the man off the hook, they were already guilty of having violated the Law (i.e., they were guilty of the same “crime” into which they wanted to trap Jesus!). This isn’t even touching on their greater sin of disbelief and of plotting the murder of the Son of God! On many levels, the accusers had accused themselves.

May we learn from their example, examining our own hearts long and hard when we are inclined to level accusations against another.

As Jesus traced on the ground the second time, the woman’s accusers drifted away, beginning with the elders. Finally, Jesus was left alone with the woman. “Has no one condemned you?”…“No one, Lord.”…“Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:10-11).

In saying this, Jesus sets an example for us. These days we are often told that we only have two choices: either we approve of the sin or we hate the sinner. This, in effect, is the same trap the Pharisees tried to spring on Jesus. The proposal itself is fatally flawed. There is another response, a holy response, which Jesus models for us. He did not champion the woman’s right to commit adultery. He did not approve of her sin, but rather told her to sin no more. Nor did He condemn her, even though she was guilty. He did not hate the sinner. Rather, He hated the sin of adultery, loving the sinner, enough to give her a chance to break free from the slavery of sin. As He said, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather rejoices in their conversion, that they may live (see Ezekiel 33:11). As we follow our Master’s footsteps, we are not to condemn, but rather to work toward the repentance, redemption and salvation of the sinner. We are to invite our fellow sinners to enter into the joy of the sacred order, not to contribute to their flight from it (either by condemning them or by encouraging their sin).

In addition, Jesus’ words call us all to avoid the twin pitfalls of presumption and despair. Had He simply told the woman she was forgiven without cautioning her against sin, she (and we) might’ve been left with the impression that adultery was no big deal in His eyes. She could just come back for more forgiveness and continue to let her desires run her life (that’s presumption). On the other hand, Had Jesus condemned her, she (and we) would have had no hope of turning her life around, of finding salvation (that’s despair). Instead, we are called to repentance, to turn away from sin, to receive God’s gift of salvation, and to live a new life.

There is yet another layer to these stories, one in which we can all find ourselves, even if we are not guilty of sexual sin. Many times in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and His people is compared to the relationship of a Bridegroom with His bride. When Israel forsakes the Lord for idols, the prophets call her a harlot (Jeremiah 3 is just one example). That was the whole idea behind the ministry of Hosea. God commanded him to marry a prostitute so that His people would have a living model of the spiritual condition of the nation (Hosea 1:2). Jesus Himself brings this image into the new Testament by describing those who refused to believe in Him as “adulterous” (Matthew 12:39, Matthew 16:4, Mark 8:38), and St. Paul develops it further by comparing the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). Further, at its root, every sin is a form of idolatry. It’s giving something other than God (be it pleasure or pride or whatever) the priority that is due to God alone. Whenever we sin, we betray our divine Bridegroom, committing adultery with His creature. Like Susanna, we have an enemy who would lure us into this sin, into this adultery. Sometimes it seems as though we are trapped, at his mercy. But we can always cry out, as Susanna did. Ultimately, our Bridegroom will rescue us. Even if we have succumbed, He will take us back when we repent. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:10-11).

May we who have been loved so extravagantly go, and sin no more.

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