Saturday, April 2, 2011
Saturday of the Third Week in Lent
When should we speak out against injustice and wickedness, and when should we hold our tongue? When does our silence promote the cause of virtue, right, and mercy, and when does it subvert those goods and betray those most in need of our voice?
Today we hear two stories from the Scriptures about the just and the wicked use of speech, about virtuous and vicious silences, of men led by lust to speak and to counsel holding one's tongue, of a man moved by God to proclaim what others must have known, but out of fear of misplaced reverence would not say, and yet others who, convicted in their hearts, abandon their temptation to smother the lives of others with their words, and depart without saying a thing.
In the story of Susanna, we know, of course, the more obvious uses of speech. There is the false accusation made by the elders against Susanna, the brave challenge issued by the young Daniel, and the vindication of Susanna through the contradictory accounts given by the lustful elders. However, speech and silence form a continuous thread in the whole story. The garden of Susanna's husband, for example, is a place where the Jews in Babylon gather and where they receive the decisions of the elders. The elders, in threatening Susanna, subvert her own speech, so that only silent acquiescence in vice would maintain her public reputation for virtue, while her crying aloud against them would and does bring their false witness.
What alarms us, as it alarmed Daniel, are not only the misuse of words, but the failure to speak as well. When Daniel hears that the multitudes believed them as being the elders and the judges of the people, and they condemned her to death, he does not merely speak out against this injustice — And he cried out in a loud voice: I am clear from the blood of this woman. — but also against the deafening and culpable compliance of the crowd: Are ye so foolish, ye children of Israel, that without examination or knowledge of the truth, you have condemned a daughter of Israel? One wonders as well about Joakim, Susanna's husband, introduced to us in the story as the most honorable of all the Jews in Babylon. Where is his defense of Susanna? Where the outcry from her parents, whom we have been told were just and feared God, or from her children and all her kindred, whom we are told accompanied her to the place of judgment and wept, but seem not to have said a word? Why is it that Susanna alone understood the dynamics at work, of the need to speak the truth even at the risk of death, and whose heart alone had confidence in the Lord?
The Gospel also presents us with both wicked speech and significant silence. Here, in the midst of Jesus' teaching at the temple, the scribes and Pharisees bring before him a woman taken in adultery. There is no question here of false accusation. As they say, this woman was even now taken in adultery. Nor are there words about the Law false in any way: Now Moses in the law commanded us to stone such a one. Even so, Jesus replies not with speech at all, but with the silence of the written word: But Jesus bowing Himself down, wrote with His finger on the ground. Even after having given his simple judgment in reply — He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. — Jesus returns to the silence of his letters: And again stooping down, He wrote on the ground. the crowd says nothing in reply, but departs in silence, as Jesus notes by a simple pair of questions to the accused woman: Woman, where are they that accused thee? Hath no man condemned thee?
What we see in these stories is that there is no easy or unambiguous connection between speech and silence on the one hand and righteousness or sin on the other. To be sure, false words spoken knowingly, and all the more when spoken in witness against another, are incompatible with righteousness. On the other hand, we see that true words, spoken in true witness against another, with impeccable appeal to the content of God's holy Law, can nonetheless overturn the very righteousness for which the Law was given. Likewise, while silence can collude with injustice, such as the elders' counsel for Susanna to remain silent or the silence of the crowd in the face of Susanna's condemnation, silence can also be a means of conversion, whether the pointed silence of Jesus as he writes on the ground or the silence in which the confounded scribes and Pharisees depart, knowing themselves undone.
What is not ambiguous is that the right use of speech, when we ought to speak up and when to keep silent, depends altogether on how our speech or silence succeeds or fails in binding us more deeply in love of God and love of neighbor. It is Susanna's unwavering trust in her God that empowers her to hope in vindication even while willing to face death for righteousness' sake. It is his openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit that enables Daniel, even in his youth, to speak when his fellows remained silent, and it is his love for his kinsmen, for this innocent daughter of Israel, that fuels his righteous indignation against the elders and his shaming of his fellow Jews. In contrast, while what the scribes and Pharisees said was true, it was not spoken for the sake of woman herself, either to bring her to justice or to repentance, but that they might accuse Jesus. Their speech, however true, violated the more basic obligation of love of neighbor, of care for the household of faith. Moreover, by refusing to respond in words, Jesus revealed his care not for the woman alone, whom he pardons and counsels from further sin, but for the accusing scribes and Pharisees. Not allowing them to be drawn into a battle of words, he compels them to hear the accusations of their own hearts, and thus withdraw and refrain from the shedding of blood.
We do well, to be sure, to parse out the ethics of speech and silence, and such questions ought not to be brushed aside as so much useless philosophical wrangling. Even so, deeper than the question of our tongue is the question of our heart. In our words and in our silences, do we open ourselves to our Lord Jesus Christ and allow him to reveal to us not only our failings, but also his mercy? In our words and in our silences, do we invite those we encounter, the innocent and the guilty, to share in that same mercy he won for them as well upon the Cross?
O Lord, stretch forth Thy right hand to Thy faithful people with help from heaven: that they may seek Thee with all their heart and deserve to obtain what they worthily request.