Justice in the Margins of Scripture
I grew up as a tried and true Evangelical in a modestly liberal church in Oregon. I was mostly unaware of “Evangelical culture” and expected all Christians to believe and behave as I did. It wasn’t until I was well into college and my studies as a Theology major that I learned about the Church calendar and the lectionary that millions of Christians follow. My first visit to Seattle Pacific University included an observation of a theology class where they happened to be studying the Apocrypha that day. I was shocked that there were books in their bibles that I had never heard of and all I could think was, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”
It turns out that no one told me of these mysterious books because they didn’t really understand themselves. What are we to make of these books that some Christians believe is Canon and others do not? Do they hold the weight of Scripture or not? I couldn’t help but find it amusing that the Old Testament Reading for Monday of this week comes from Daniel 13, part of Daniel that is not included in Protestant bibles. As a Protestant, I am fascinated by these texts and find them useful in many ways.
Monday’s first text is the story of a woman named Susanna. She is a young woman of both great beauty and virtue. While bathing in the garden, two elders of the community forced themselves upon her and demanded that she sleep with them. Choosing what she knows will be certainly be her end, she screams for help because “it is better for me to fall into your power without guilt than to sin before the Lord.”
Susanna is brought before a trial and the elders are at first believed to be telling the truth. Susanna cries out to God who “raised up the holy spirit of a young man,” Daniel, who began to shout, “I will have no part in the death of this woman.” He interrogates the elders and traps them in their lies, freeing the innocent Susanna. Daniel’s receptivity to the Spirit of God within him prompts him to action, and thus to justice.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we get to a mysterious gospel story that is often preceded in modern bibles with the disclaimer “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have this text.” For some Christians, this text is a dubious as the secretive Apocrypha; if it isn’t in the original manuscripts then why is it in our Bibles today? And even though it is there, should we really treat it as authoritative? The Canon’s answer is a resounding yes. The canonizing community clearly felt that this widely known story was too essential to leave out of the canon, and thus it found its home in John 8.
This story in many ways mirrors Susanna’s story—it at first seems similar but as you look closely you realize everything is flipped backward. Susanna was virtuous and was absolved of all charges when the truth was known. The adulterous woman of John 8 can make no claims of innocence. The text says she was “caught in the act of adultery.” The truth of her sin would not set her free. And yet Christ seems less concerned with her actions than those of the crowds. He tells them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He asks if anyone has condemned her and she responds no, so he replies, “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Another woman saved from trial at the last possible moment.
Two stories, separated by centuries and testaments, yet connect by a single thread. These women were unquestionably marginalized in their societies—their testimonies did not hold up in court and their ‘crimes’ are of sexual nature, yet no men are condemned here. What is striking about both stories is that they both end in the women being freed of their guilt, their shame, and their punishments. In Susanna’s case we are relieved to see an innocent woman go free, but in the adulterous woman’s case we are a bit confused. How could she receive the same freedom as Susanna when she was not so virtuous?
Maybe this God—manifest in the Spirit inside Daniel and incarnate in Christ—is less concerned with our own actions and more concerned with giving incomprehensible grace and justice. Maybe the link between these stories is not just the characters, but also their outcomes. These stories represent a God who is deeply in love—with justice, with mercy, and deeply in love with us. As it happens so many times in Scripture, we see God taking the side of the oppressed and marginalized. God gives to us freely regardless of our past, regardless of if we find ourselves in the shoes of the sinner or the saint. God gives grace to all, so will we choose to live in this abundant mercy and grace today?
Laura works as the Middle School Coordinator at Bethany Presbyterian Church and as a Starbucks Barista. She loves heated discussions and learning as much as she can. In her free time she’s training for a half-marathon and actively watches far too many TV shows.