In my sophomore year of high school I tried out for the play “Up the Down Staircase,” by Christopher Sergel, based on the book by Bel Kaufman.
I did not expect much from the casting. In my high school years I was, to put it mildly, uptight. Straight-laced. Prudish. Moralistic. Narrow-minded. Stick in the mud. Pick your synonym or euphemism. If it means “obsessed with the rules to an unhealthy extent,” well, that was me. And there really wasn’t a leading part fit for me in this play about a female teacher and a delinquent male student.
But, to my surprise, when the cast list came out, my name was there, as Joe Ferone — the delinquent, underachieving troublemaker. Perhaps the director just knew I needed to lighten up some. And, I did — a lot. I really bought into that role, and I like to think I played it well.
The point is, we often, in life, end up playing roles we didn’t anticipate, and perhaps never thought we’d fill. And, in today’s readings, we have a couple of stories in which we see characters thrust into roles they wouldn’t choose, and most likely did not anticipate.
First, in Susanna — an apocryphal book for Protestants, and an addition to the Book of Daniel for Catholics and Orthodox Christians — we are introduced to “the daughter of Hilkiah, named Susanna, a very beautiful woman and one who feared the Lord.”
Right off the bat, we’re told Susanna was an upright young woman, who feared the Lord and strove to live her life according to God’s Law.
But, Susanna is betrayed by two Jewish elders and judges — the very people who are supposed to uphold God’s Law. They lust after Susanna, and attempt to rape her by means of coercive threats. She refuses, knowing she will die if they accuse her, as they threaten, of committing adultery. But, she refuses their advances, choosing public disgrace and almost certain death over disobeying God.
The judges’ accusations win over the public, and Susanna is led away to be executed. But, she cries out: “O eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, though I have done none of the wicked things that they have charged against me!”
The Holy Spirit inspires Daniel, who is among the crowd, to advocate for her innocence, and he shouts with a loud voice: “I want no part in shedding this woman”s blood!”
Daniel goes on to examine the judges’ testimonies, and reveals their false witness. In the end, the judges are executed, and Susanna is redeemed and saved.
There are several roles we can play here. I think everyone would like to be Daniel. Who doesn’t like saving the day? Few would want to be Susanna. Who wants to be falsely accused, humiliated and very nearly executed? Hopefully, none of us would want to be the lecherous judges. They are vile, and in the end get what they deserve.
Few of us will ever have to play one of those roles. But, there’s one more role. It’s a role many of us — including me — are tempted to play on a daily basis. The crowd.
When Susanna is falsely accused, it is the crowd that is quick to judge. It is the crowd that wants to believe the sensational sins they hear recounted. It is the crowd that wants to elevate themselves by pushing her down. It is the crowd that lusts after her blood, as much as the judges lusted after her body. Like the crowd that cries “We want Barabbas!” this crowd cries for innocent blood.
How often do we play this role?
Few of us have stood in a crowd crying for someone to be stoned or crucified. But, how often do we hear rumor or conjecture about someone else’s sins, and rush to judgment?
Setting aside questions of secular jurisprudence, and speaking spiritually, how many of us clamor to condemn those we believe are less virtuous than ourselves? If we’re honest, I think most of us, at some point, have stood in that crowd, crying for blood.
And, in that other story — of Jesus, the woman caught in adultery, her accusers and the crowd — what roles do we play?
Again, we can find ourselves in the crowd. And, if we’re honest, I think we’ve all, at times, played the role of the scribes and Pharisees — judging and accusing, in hopes of elevating ourselves as more righteous than the accused.
There’s an added dimension to the accusers in this narrative, beyond what we saw in Susanna. The scribes and the Pharisees are being just as dishonest as the lecherous judges, but in this case they’re using their accusation against the woman in an attempt to condemn a third party — Jesus. Whether she’s actually committed adultery or not is incidental. She’s being used as a disposable weapon, in hopes of tripping up Jesus in the Law so that he, too, can be condemned.
Of course, the scribes and Pharisees fail. But, have we ever also used God’s Word in attempts to trip up and condemn others? Because they are different from us? Because we feel threatened by them? Because their faith is different from ours?
At the other end of the extreme, we have Jesus, who confounds and dispels the scribes and Pharisees with these oft-quoted words: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Could any of us say we’ve played this role? Surely not. We’re not perfect. But, not so fast. No, we’re not perfect. We’re not Christ. But, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. And in the story of Susanna and Daniel, we’ve seen how the Holy Spirit moves through humans to do work directed by the Divine.
When we see injustice and cruelty being committed in our midst, we each are called to have the courage to speak up, and when necessary, to act. We all have this potential, if we, like Daniel, open ourselves to be moved by God.
But, there is one last role in these narratives we need to fill. Of all these roles, this is the most essential one. We, each and every one of us, must play the role of the accused woman.
No, I’m not saying we need to commit adultery, or face being stoned to death.
But, each of us is a sinner. If we listen to the words of Jesus, each of us who has carried lust in our heart is an adulterer. Each of us who’s carried hate in our heart is a murderer.
The point isn’t that we should be condemned. The point is that we, like the woman who’s been condemned, need Jesus to stand between us and what would otherwise be the outcome of our sins. We need to kneel there with her, at the feet of Jesus, in the dirt of our sins, and surrender to His grace.
We need to embrace the words He has for the condemned woman: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
We’re not told what the woman does next. We’d hope she goes on her way, and never sins again. But, in reality, we know that probably wasn’t the case. If we look at ourselves, we know that’s most certainly not the case.
We will sin again. We are sinners. It’s going to happen. And when it does, we’re called right back to that same place, to return to the feet of Christ, to repent, and accept His love and grace.
Lord Christ, help us to examine the roles we play each day, and when necessary, to mend our ways to better follow you. Strengthen us to avoid the temptation to judge others. Grant us courage to speak and act in the cause of your truth and justice. And, when we sin, let us fly to you, to surrender and fully embrace the grace you eternally hold for us. Amen.