Day 25: Salvation and Mercy
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
But the truth of the matter is this; Christian redemption is God’s mercy to all mankind; but it could not be so, if every fallen man, as such, had not some fitness and capacity to lay hold of it. It must have no dependence upon times and places or the ages and several conditions of the world or any outward circumstance of life; as the first man partook of it, so must the last; the learned linguist and the blind, as the deaf and dumb, have but one and the same common way of finding life in it….thus does the whole of Christian redemption, considered on the part of man, stand in this degree of nearness and plainness to all mankind. It is as simple and plain as the feeling our own evil and misery and as natural as the desire of being saved and delivered from it.[i]
William Law (d. 1761), A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
O Lord and heavenly father, we know that we deserve to be judged for our evil acts. But by the great comfort of your grace, we pray that we might be mercifully relieved from our guilt, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
Susanna 1.1-64 (Daniel 13)
This is the longest text we will encounter during this Lenten season. It tells an ancient story of how the chaste Susannah was falsely accused, but then surprisingly vindicated, by the intercession of Daniel. Both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox consider this text Scripture. Anglicans simply consider it edifying reading. Almost all scholars justifiably consider this text a later addition to the book of Daniel.[iii] No Jewish authorities ever quote this text as Scripture.[iv] This story was handed down to us by the Greek version of the OT (the Septuagint) and thus can be found quoted by several church fathers, suggesting it was readily employed in the early church. Despite its disputed status, the story tells of the great importance of maintaining one’s integrity even in impossible situations. It reminds us that our ultimate vindication comes from God and not from fallible human opinion.
1Now there was man living in Babylon whose name was Joachim. 2And he took a wife whose name was Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah, an exceedingly beautiful woman who reverenced the Lord. 3And her parents were righteous and taught their daughter according to the Law of Moses. 4And Joachim was exceedingly wealthy and had a paradise garden adjacent to his house; the Jews used to come over because he was the most distinguished of them all.
5Now in that year two Elders were appointed from the people to judge (concerning which the sovereign Lord said, “Lawlessness comes out from Babylon from the Elders, whose judges only seem to guide the people.”); 6these Elders were constantly at Joachim’s house and everyone with lawsuits was coming out to them. 7Now in the middle of the day, when the people went away, Susanna used to go in and walk in her husband’s paradise garden. 8And the two Elders saw her day after day, going in and walking. And they became completely infatuated with her. 9So they perverted their own minds and they averted their eyes so as to not look up to heaven, nor to remember their own just legal decisions. 10And they both had heart throbs because of her but did not report their distress to one another, 11since they were ashamed to admit their lust because they both wanted to have sex with her.
12They would zealously watch her closely day after day to catch a glimpse of her. 13Then, one day, one said to the other, “Let’s go into the house since it’s lunchtime.” After going out, they departed from one another. 14But after doubling back, they came to the same place and interrogated each other’s motives. They both confessed their lust. So together they agreed on a time when they might be able to find her alone.
15So it happened while they were intently scoping out an opportune day, she came in just like the day before and three days prior, accompanied by two maidens alone. And she wanted to take a bath in the paradise garden since it was hot. 16Now there was no one there except the two hidden Elders watching her closely. 17She said to her female servants, “Please bring me oil and ointment and close the gate of the paradise garden so I can bathe.” 18And they did just as she said. They closed the gate to the paradise garden and went out by the side gate to procure the requested items, but did not see the Elders since they were hidden.
19And it happened when the maids left that the two Elders rose up and rushed to her. 20And they said, “Look, the gates to the paradise garden are closed and no one will see us and we want you bad! So agree to have sex with us! 21If you won’t, we’ll say there was a young man with you and that’s why you sent your maids away.”
22So Susanna groaned and said, “I’m in a bad spot on every side since if I do this, it will be death to me, but if I don’t I won’t escape your hands. But it’s better for me not to do it and to fall into your hands than to sin against the Lord.” 24So Susanna cried out with a loud voice and the two Elders shouted against her. 25And one of them ran to open the door of the paradise garden. 26When those in the household heard the shrieking in the paradise garden, they entered through the side gate to see what had happened to her. 27Then, when the Elders told their side of the story, the servants were exceedingly shocked since never before had anyone said such a thing about Susanna.
28Now it happened the next day that the people went together to her husband, Joachim. The two Elders came filled with lawless intent to have Susanna put to death. 29And they said in front of the people, “Send for Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah, who is the wife of Joachim.” So they sent for her. 30Then she came along with her parents and her children and all her relatives. Now Susanna was exceedingly gentle and beautiful in appearance. 32And they unlawfully commanded her to unveil herself (for she was covered up) so that they might be titillated by her beauty. 33And all those with her and everyone looking on wept. 34Then the two Elders arose in the midst of the people and placed their hands on her head 35and the lament reached up to heaven since her heart was firmly set upon the Lord.
36Then the Elders said, “We were walking in the paradise garden alone when her two young attendants were with her. She shut the door to the paradise garden and sent away her servants. 27Then a young man, who was hidden, came to her and he slept with her. 38Now we were in the corner of the paradise garden, watching the lawless act, and ran to them. 39And when we saw them wrapped together we were not able to subdue the young man because he was too strong for us. He opened the door and rushed out. 40But seizing her, we inquired who the young man was 41and she was not willing to tell us. We testify to these things.”
Since they were Elders of the people and judges, the congregation believed them and they sentenced her to die.
42Then Susanna wailed with a loud voice and said, “O eternal God, who discerns what is secret and who sees all things before they take place, 43you are aware that they have testified falsely against me, and look, I will die not having done any of the things they maliciously asserted against me.”
44Then the Lord heard her voice. 45And as she was being led away to her ruin, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad whose name was Daniel. 46And he cried out with a loud voice, “I am innocent of this blood.”
47Then all the people turned to him and said, “What is this thing which you have spoken?” 48So he stood in their midst and said, “Are you fools, O sons of Israel? Are you condemning a daughter of Israel without an examination to determine the accuracy of the testimony? 49Return to the court, for those who have testified against her are lying.”
50So all the people returned with haste. And the Elders said to him, “Come, sit in our midst and tell us how God has given you the status of an Elder.” 51Then Daniel said to them, “First separate the Elders a long way from each other and I will interrogate them.” 52And as one was separated from the other, he called one of them over and said to him, “Having spent many days in wickedness, now your sins have caught up with you when, in former times, you judged unjustly, and condemned the innocent while setting free the guilty, even though the Lord has said, ‘You must not put to death an innocent and righteous person.’ 54So now, although you knew this, tell us under what tree you saw them having relations with one another?” And he said, “Under the mastic tree.” 55Then Daniel said, “Right…your perjury is on your own head for already the angels of God have received the judgment from God. You will be cut in two!”
56Then he had him removed and summoned the other Elder to come. He said to him, “Son of Canaan and not Judah, beauty has completely beguiled you and lust has distorted your heart. 57This is how you’ve been treating the daughters of Israel. Being afraid of you, they had relations with you, but this daughter of Judah held out against your lawlessness. 58So now, tell me, under what tree did you catch them having relations with one another?” And he said, “Under the evergreen.” 59And Daniel said to him, “Right…Your perjury is on your own head, for the angel of God is standing with his sword to cut you in two. He’s about to utterly destroy both of you.”
60Then the whole congregation cried out with a loud voice and they gave thanks to God for saving those who put their hope in Him. 61Then they grabbed the two Elders since Daniel had convicted them both by their own perjured words of testimony. So they did to them in the way they were intending to afflict their neighbor. 62They dealt with them according to the Law of Moses and put them to death. So innocent blood was saved on that day. 63Hilkiah and his wife praised God for their daughter Susanna along with Joachim her husband and all her relatives since no shameful act could be found in her. 64And Daniel became great before the people from that day forward.
New Testament Lesson
Although this story appears in none of the earliest manuscripts we have, its origins appear to be quite ancient. The Church historian Eusebius appears to be familiar with it and his source is the second-century Church Father Papias.[v] If they are speaking of the same story, this would argue for its ancient character. The Church took a long time to warm to this story since Jesus’ quick forgiveness of the woman seems to contradict other statements that take a hard line on infidelity. Yet, from the fifth century onward, this story has had an important place in elucidating the mercy that Jesus offers sinners if they repent. Thus most Christian traditions accept this text as Scripture, even if the evidence we have for its inclusion leaves much to be desired.
1Now Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Again, when it was early in the morning, he went to the temple and the people were coming to Him. Sitting, He taught them. 3Then the Scribes and the Pharisees brought a women who had been caught in adultery and they stood her in their midst. 4They said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. 5Now in the Law of Moses, he commanded us to stone such a one. So what do you say?” 6They were saying this to trap him so that they might have an excuse to bring charges against Him.
But Jesus bent down and was drawing with His finger on the ground. 7As they persisted in asking him, He looked up and said to them, “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone against her.” 8Again He bent down to write on the ground. 9And those who heard it started leaving, one after another, beginning with the oldest, leaving the woman alone in His midst. 10Then Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, who’s left? Does no one condemn you?” 11She said, “No one Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, sin no more.”
Questions for reflection?
- In what ways has injustice found its way to you? How do you deal with it when you are falsely accused or experience unjust treatment?
- Joachim, Susanna’s husband, plays a very minor role in our OT story. What does it say about Joachim that he fails to come to his wife’s aid in some material way? Has this been your experience?
- The Scribes and Pharisees are often resisting Jesus. How do you know when to extend mercy versus extending “tough love”?
- What is your reaction to Jesus’ actions in our NT lesson? Is He too soft on crime? Would it make a difference if this were the fifth time she had been caught in adultery (remember our lesson from yesterday where Jesus reveals himself as I AM for the first time to a woman who had had multiple husbands)?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Our two readings today have close links. In both cases, women who had been accused of adultery managed to avoid the death penalty prescribed by the Law. In our OT lesson, Susanna’s sterling character is vindicated when Daniel uncovers the treachery of her judges. In our NT lesson, Jesus extends mercy to a woman about to be stoned to death. John presents a touching picture of Jesus as merciful toward sinners.
The difficult question is whether, by Jesus’ standards, judgment of others is ever permissible. In this Lenten season, we have been discovering that we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. So who are we to judge others given the jumbled state of our own souls?
While we should always err on the side of the mercy, since we really are in the same boat with other sinners, this should not lead to callous indifference toward sin.[vi] It would be the wrong conclusion to draw from these lessons that sin affects everyone so it really doesn’t matter. Jesus is our Savior, but He’s also our Judge. We must not abuse His offer of mercy to go off and fulfill whatever passions we can’t seem to control. Constantly giving into passion makes us little better than animals. As humans, we’ve been given a will to counteract our passions. This is one of the things that makes us distinctively human.
The even harder lesson comes in the story of Susanna. This tale depicts injustice of the worst kind when those with power use it to prey upon others and then cover up their misdeeds. The takeaway from the story probably shouldn’t be that sterling character will always be vindicated. After all, how often do happy endings really take place in this life? Life is usually a whole lot more complicated than that.
The harder reality is that our vindication, in fact, may not happen in this lifetime. We may be falsely accused. We may be unfairly treated. We almost certainly will be misunderstood. But the text (v. 35) describes Susanna as having her heart “firmly set” on the Lord. This idea of “firmly set” translates a Greek word that usually means “convinced.” Susanna, even at the worst time of her life, managed to be convinced that God was with her. Whether or not she was vindicated before her accusers was of secondary importance. It was what God thought of her that mattered to her.
We cannot control how our lives turn out. Some of us will be fortunate to be healthy, happy and fulfilled. Most of us will go through great struggles that will threaten our peace of mind. How are we supposed to deal with the fragility of life?
In the Middle Ages, monks re-thought the “wheel of fortune,” which they had inherited from pagan antiquity. The wheel of fortune recognized the inherent fragility of life. The wheel belonged to the capricious goddess “Fortuna” who spun it at will. One could never be sure what would come up – riches, ease and happiness, or pain, poverty and deprivation. The outcome of life ultimately wasn’t under our control.
The wheel had four stations. The top section was entitled the “reign,” intimating that one was on top of the world, having conquered. The second stage said, “I have reigned,” which suggested that a kind of deterioration had taken place. The third state said, “I have no kingdom,” which implied deprivation and loss. But at the bottom – and this was unique to Christian treatments of the wheel of fortune – it said, “I will reign again.” Thus Christians in the late Middle Ages transformed the idea of fate into the hope of resurrection and restoration.
We cannot control the circumstances of our lives, but we can control how we react to them. Thus life is all about interpretation. For some, great loss and deprivation is a chance to rise. For others, it’s an excuse to wallow in the muck. The key, however, is to just keep going with our faith, even when it becomes difficult.
This is why we should always lead with mercy toward others. If God has been abundantly merciful to us, we ought to extend that mercy to others. Life becomes a whole lot more livable when we stop expecting everything to just “work out.” Things might not work out. If we look to God for our vindication and not to the culture, this is far firmer ground on which to stand. We may not be perfect, but God will reward good character, if not now, then after we die.
- Extend Mercy
If someone has wronged you in some way, consider extending mercy to that person out of gratitude for the mercy that God first extended to you.
[i] William Law, “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728),” in The Works of William Law, vol. 4 (London, 1893), 179–180.
[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 474.
[iii] Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah: The Additions, vol. 44, The Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale Press, 1977), 43.
[iv] Ibid., 44:44.
[v] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 335.
[vi] Ibid., 338.
Notes to Week Four