Today we’re confronted by two stories of women being threatened with violent death. In the first reading, it is clear the charges are false, and the witnesses and judges are blinded by their own interests. Luckily, like in any good story, Susanna is vindicated at the last moment by God through Daniel, who saves the day by trapping Susanna’s accusers in their own lies. The tables are turned, and the villains are severely punished. A satisfying conclusion to a disturbing tale.
In the Gospel things progress rather differently. Unlike in the first reading, we don’t know all the details and circumstances about this woman – we don’t even know her name! Her accusers say she was “caught in the very act,” but she is brought forward without her purported partner. We might wonder if she really was guilty, or if she, like Susanna, was caught up in some greater scheme by her accusers. After all, we are told that the entire spectacle is designed to trap Jesus into charges that would condemn him.
As I imagine the crowd gathering around her, I want Jesus to get angry. To call out the injustice of those who victimize and shame women. To shepherd her away from the judgmental eyes. To rail against the double standards that has the woman condemned while a man goes free. To be vindicated before the people who were trying to trick him. I want Jesus to punish all the villains of the story, like a true hero.
Then I remember: Jesus is not that kind of savior. Like the disciples before me, I fall easily into the trap of wanting Jesus to be a swashbuckling superhero, triumphing easily over his enemies with his brilliance, power, and might. Instead today, I see Jesus bending down and straightening up repeatedly, writing on the ground while the woman stands in the middle of the crowd. Keeping my eye on Jesus, I see that he continually displaces himself away from those that look at this woman with judgement. I hear him reminding those gathered to search their own hearts before condemning, until finally, when the crowd is gone, he straightens up and looking at the woman, enters into a dialogue with her, saying “neither do I condemn you.”
Jesus does not come to perpetuate the same violent systems that dominate our world, but to expose, subvert, and end them, just like he does in the Gospel today. Jesus lives wholeheartedly committed to the God’s reign of love and inclusion, and turns the world of judgement and violence upside down, entering into the plight of those who suffer and are shamed (just like when he bends down to the ground). In his interactions with this woman, Jesus treats her with dignity, and reveals to us a God of compassion, who desires relationship and reconciliation, not condemnation.
Jesus (whose very name means “God Saves”) is a different kind of savior than we expect. I’m struck as I read this Gospel passage, that in a few days we will encounter Jesus himself being put on trial and condemned to death. He too will have witnesses speak against him, and will be surrounded by crowds that seek to kill him. In this Fifth Week of Lent, staying with the stories of these women caught up in unjust trials, we treasure this truth: there is no reality of our suffering that Jesus does not desire to enter into, accompany us in, and transform.
How does Jesus desire to enter into and transform our suffering today? How does God seek to disrupt the systems of judgment, violence, and death in our world? Where (and with whom) will we choose to place ourselves today, and in the days ahead?