|“Susanna in the Bath” by Paolo Veronese, 1565-70|
During the Fifth Week of Lent (especially in cycles B and C when the Gospel of Lazarus is not read on the Fifth Sunday of Lent) optional MassTexts are offered.
Reading 1: Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62
Commentary on Dn 13:1-9, 15-17,19-30, 33-62
The story of Susanna and the Elders is one of three stories that now exist only in Greek. Neither this story nor the stories of "Bel and the Dragon" (Daniel 14) and The prayer of Azariah" (Daniel 3:24ff) are included in the Hebrew Canon but have always been included by the Church.
This story is one of justice and the application of Mosaic Law. Mosaic Law states in Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:5 that two witnesses must corroborate testimony against one charged. The innocent Susanna is rescued by the hero of the Book, Daniel. In demanding the law be followed scrupulously, he rescues Susanna and expunges wickedness.
Within the story we find Susanna and her family likely intended to represent Israel. The two elders may have some link with the two false prophets who committed adultery and who are denounced in Jeremiah 29:21-23. The point is clearly made that what leads them astray is lust. A work attributed to St John Chrysostom comments on this passage: "If no passion undermines and corrupts it, the soul will remain clean and unstained. But if he does not guard his eyes, and looks at whatever he wants around him in the world, […] the poison of desire will enter through a man's sight and strike to the bottom of his heart; and he who was once a sober and modest man will be overwhelmed by a whirlwind of passions" (De Susanna, col. 591).
Shorter Form: Daniel 13:41c-62
Commentary on Dn 13:41c-62
The shorter version omits all that led up to the trial and conviction of Susanna. In doing so, this shorter form requires the reader to infer, based upon the final verdict, the injustice being plotted by the wicked elders. Daniel, now a Judge raised up by God to protect the innocent not a seer or interpreter of dreams, intervenes to rescue Susanna and demonstrate the justice of Mosaic Law.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
R. (4ab) Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
Commentary on Ps 23:1-3a, 3b-4,5, 6
Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar songs in the entire psalter. “God's loving care for the psalmist is portrayed under the figures of a shepherd for the flock (Psalm 23:1-4) and a host's generosity toward a guest (Psalm 23:5-6). The imagery of both sections is drawn from traditions of the exodus (Isaiah 40:11; 49:10; Jeremiah 31:10).” While the theme of Shepherd is mentioned in the first strophe, the psalm really speaks to the peace given to those who follow the Lord and place their trust in Him, even into the “dark valley.”
The reference in the third strophe above: “'You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes' occurs in an exodus context in Psalm 78:19. As my enemies watch: my enemies see that I am God's friend and guest. Oil: a perfumed ointment made from olive oil, used especially at banquets (Psalm 104:15; Matthew 26:7; Luke 7:37, 46; John 12:2).”
CCC: Ps 23:5 1293
Gospel: John 8:1-11
Commentary on Jn 8:1-11
John’s Gospel places Jesus once more in the temple precincts. The story of Jesus and the Adulterous Woman constitutes another example of how the Jewish leadership attempts to trap Jesus with a difficult legal problem. They have no doubt heard the Lord’s teaching about loving one another and believe that he will not condemn the adulterous woman and thereby give them reason to call him “blasphemer.” As a side note, most scripture scholars believe this passage was not originally in St. John’s Gospel but was borrowed from St. Luke. Regardless, from a very early period it has been considered sacred in the current context.
It is not completely clear what Jesus is being asked to judge. The law concerning adultery by a betrothed virgin was stoning (see Deuteronomy22:23-24). However, the law concerning married women was simply death (see Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22) and was generally carried out by strangulation.
In response, rather than debating the law, he simply begins writing in the dust. Tradition tells us that what he wrote with his finger was a list of the sins of those gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery. He then asked that the one without sin should cast the first stone. (The first stones were to be thrown by the witnesses.)
In either case, Jesus should not have been able to commute her sentence without going against the law so he uses his knowledge of people’s hearts to have the charges withdrawn. As we saw in the first reading, two accusers are required to condemn a person under the law.
The story continues that after his second set of writings in the dust, the group gathered to stone the woman; “…went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Even, or more importantly first, the elders left. No one was without sin. In the closing statement Jesus does something unexpected. He does not judge the woman either; rather he tells her to go and sin no more emphasizing that Jesus came into the world not to judge it but through his presence save it.
CCC: Jn 8:2 583
Today we ask a rhetorical question: what do you suppose Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger? The stage is set. Jesus is in the temple area teaching. The religious leaders who have been looking for a means by which he could be arrested decide to set a fool-proof trap for him; they bring him a woman who has been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death under the Law of Moses (…would you prefer strangulation or stoning?).
The logic of the scribes and Pharisees was that if Jesus, well known for his mercy and forgiveness, pardoned her; he would have gone against the Law of Moses and they would have grounds to arrest him. If he condemned her, they would lay her death at his feet, just as the death of St. Stephen was laid at the feet of Saul (St. Paul): “They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul “(Acts 7:58).
Instead of taking either side, guilt or innocence, Jesus begins writing on the ground with his finger. What, we wonder, did he write? There has been much speculation about this. The most common belief is that he was writing the sins committed by the woman’s accusers – the witnesses against her. The details of what those sins may have been are not recorded. The results, however, were that those who attempted to defeat Jesus left.
The lesson of forgiveness is hammered home in the final verses of the passage as the Lord neither condemns the woman nor condones her actions. Under the Law of Moses, for a person to be found guilty of a crime, two witnesses must testify to the guilt of the accused. In this case, there were none left and the woman was free to go. Was she guilty of adultery? No statement of guilt or innocence is mentioned. (It is interesting, however, that this story is described as “The Story of the Adulterous Woman” inferring a presumption of guilt.)
The next time we feel as though someone has wronged us and presume to punish them with angry words or legal action, let us envision the Lord calmly stooping down to write in the dirt with his finger. We as Christians are called to a forgiveness that the Lord died for. Can we do less for others?
 The picture is “Susanna in the Bath” by Paolo Veronese, 1565-70
 The Navarre Bible: “Major Prophets”, Scepter Publishers, Princeton, NJ, © 2002, pp. 873
 See NAB footnote on Psalm 23