In the story today of Susanna, the deep callousness of the two men who set out to rape or kill is made evident. Either she must surrender herself to their sexual desire, or they will orchestrate her death. Society will basically help them to kill her, because under Jewish law her body did not belong to her, herself, but to her husband.
With both Susanna, who is innocent of any wrongdoing, and then later in the Gospel story of the woman who is to be stoned for adultery, we see the intervention of God with justice and mercy. In Susanna’s story, mercy and justice are intermingled.
The story of the adulteress is far less clear-cut. Here we have this strange intervention of Jesus who asks what is happening, who challenges the men, “Let one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The intervention of God in both these stories is an intervention that restores lost dignity. God is acting in a way that is simultaneously merciful and just. Susanna’s life is saved and her innocence is shown to all the community. The woman taken in adultery is liberated from those who want to kill her. Her innate dignity is reaffirmed by Jesus who forgives and frees her. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Jesus lived in the Middle East 2000 years ago. His society was profoundly patriarchal and women did not have equal standing, or indeed, a voice before the law. Yet, in this Gospel story, we see Jesus affirming her basic dignity. His countercultural recognition of her as a full person and not “just” a woman is profound.
The challenge for all of us is to reassess our own cultural prejudices. How do I think about women, even if I am one myself? How do I treat the women closest to me – my mother, my sisters, my daughters, my aunts and my cousins? How do I work with women colleagues, with friends and with the stranger I meet? Do I see them as Jesus saw women?