In the Junior School Chapel and the Grade 10 Chapel this week, we had the first part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son who, having wasted his inheritance, “came to himself” and remembers his father and the home which he had left to go into “a far country.” At Senior Chapel, we had the second installment of the story of Susanna and the Elders. At once powerful and disturbing, it, too, ends with a kind of awakening. Susanna’s cry to the Lord, we are told, was heard by the Lord. Just as she is being led off to be put to death on the strength of the false witness of the two wicked judges, Daniel is moved to protest, “I am innocent of the blood of this woman.” Pretty intense and quite telling. The judges accused her of what they themselves had intended. This story is part of the background to the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery and to the problem of motives and hypocrisy. “Has no one condemned you,” Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I, go and sin no more.” Here, however, Susanna is innocent.
But what was her cry? It is an insight into the nature of God who discerns what is secret, who is aware of all things, and thus knows that these men have borne false witness against her. The opening prayer of the liturgy of Holy Communion signals the same idea: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” This kind of ethical understanding belongs to the story, the idea that God sees all and everything, the idea of a principle of justice and truth that is greater than us and our evil.
We might be tempted to read the story through a feminist lens seeing it as essentially about the victimization of women by men. There is something to that approach, to be sure. After all, the beauty of Susanna is emphasized. The judges’ lust after her. In the trial, she is literally unveiled so that the wicked men “might feast upon her beauty.” One cannot ignore the “male gaze”, the way in which she is viewed as an object. It might also be said that a male, Daniel, is seen as coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress, as if Susanna is simply weak and helpless. But the story is more than this.
The story highlights her strength of character, on the one hand, and the betrayal of the Law by the Judges, on the other hand. As such it is meant to convict Israel about the problem of the miscarriage of justice by those empowered to uphold it, and, as such, a betrayal, and a denial of God. It is, it seems, an ancient and a modern problem. There is something more though not less than the issues of social justice. She is condemned by the assembly because they believed the wicked judges. Thus, we, too, are made complicit in this travesty of justice viewed as a betrayal of God and his Law. Though the Law insists on two witnesses, here human sin and evil seek to undermine and overthrow the Law. The cry of Susanna awakens us to how we can be deceived by those in office whose actions seek their own interest. Not truth, not justice. Her cry awakens us to the deeper truth of God as that which is greater than our sin and evil. This is the greater ethical teaching.
Her cry in the face of her impending death, like the Prodigal Son coming to himself in the realization of his wasted life, awakens us to the God and Father who sees all things, the things of all our hearts and our minds. Coming to himself and remembering his father marks the return of the son. Susanna’s cry marks the turning point for her simply in the acknowledgement of God’s all-seeing love and mercy. At this point we are left wondering about the return of the Prodigal Son. Will it be as servant and not as son? And we are left wondering about Susanna’s situation. How will the evil of the wicked judges be brought to light of justice and truth? What will Daniel do? And what will we do in the face of the egregious miscarriages of justice?
Thursday, May 18 marks the fortieth day after Easter this year and celebrates the Ascension of Christ in the western Christian understanding. His ascension is the homecoming of the Son to the Father, and it is our homecoming as well. It is “the exaltation of our humanity.” We have an end with God. “We ascend,” as Augustine beautifully puts it, “in the ascension of our hearts.” Such are the motions of grace that bring us to the true dignity of our humanity as found in God.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy