July 31, 2022 Sermon on: Profiles in Faith: Susanna (Daniel 13 and Luke 8:1-3)
By: Rev. Susanna Kawolics
I was asked to preach, and Betsy told me that she was planning a summer series on Profiles of Faith, highlighting various biblical characters, I could not resist the opportunity to preach on my namesake, Susanna. The fact that there are two stories about Susannas in the Bible intrigued me even more, the challenge of tying the Hebrew Scripture story of Susanna together with the New Testament passage about Susanna.
I have to say I am so impressed that someone told me last Sunday that they had looked for the Old Testament scripture in their Bible in order to read it ahead of time, and it wasn’t there. The story of Susanna from the book of Daniel is actually not in all Protestant Bibles. It is found in what is known as the Apocrypha, or Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. These are passages that were contained in the original Greek Bible called the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which the early Christian Church used as their Old Testament. Then another version of the Hebrew canon was produced, and this did not include seven of those books, and other books, like the book of Daniel, had certain stories omitted. This newer Hebrew version was the one that Martin Luther for his translation for the Protestant Bible, which is why this story is not found in those Bibles.
Today, some passages from the Apocrypha are actually included in the Revised Common Lectionary, which many Protestant churches use as the basis for their Sunday morning scriptures. So I just want to assure you that it is acceptable to preach on the Apocrypha, lest you think I’ve become a heretic since retiring from Federated!
A little background to set the story: These events take place during the time the Jewish people were held as captives in Babylon, about 500 years before Christ. The Book of Daniel, from which this story comes, is about the prophet Daniel. You may remember him as the one who prayed to and worshipped his God, even when the law of the land forbade worshiping anyone but the King. As a result defying the law, and honoring God, he was thrown into the lion’s den as punishment, and God saved him from death. The story of Susanna takes place while he is still a young man, and sets Daniel up as a future wise prophet.
Even though I have condensed the story a bit, I have still set the record for the number of slides a scripture passage takes!
I invite you now to listen to the story of Susanna:
In Babylon there lived a Judean named Jo′akim, 2 who had married Susanna, a woman of great beauty. She was devout to the Most High.
5 That year two elders were selected to act as judges. About such people God said, “Corruption has come to Babylon through the elders, who were judges posing as guides to the people.” 6 These two, to whom all brought their cases, frequently met in the house of Jo′akim.
7 Every day around noon, after the visitors left, Susanna would go for a walk in her garden. 8 And every day, the two judges would watch her take that walk, and they began to lust for her. 12 Day after day, they spied on Susanna 13 until day they said to each other, “It’s time for us to go home for the noonday meal.” 14 So they left and parted company, but then doubled back and returned to the house. When they met, they asked each other the reason for coming back. At that, they confided their secret thoughts to each other, and they conspired to wait for an occasion to find Susanna alone.
15 One day, Susanna decided to bathe in the garden, for the day was very hot. 16 There was no one there except the two elders, spying on her from their hiding place. 19 The two elders got up and overtook her. 20 “Look,” they said, “the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We want you, so you might as well give in! 21 If you refuse, we will testify against you that you dismissed your attendants because a young man was here with you.”
22 “I am trapped, whatever I do,” Susanna groaned. “If I yield, it will result in my death. If I refuse, I cannot get away from you. 23 I choose to fall innocent into your power rather than to sin in the eyes of God!” 24 Then she began to scream as loud as she could. The two elders began shouting too, accusing her.
28 When the people came to her husband Jo′akim the next day, the corrupt elders also came, fully determined to put Susanna to death. 36 The two elders then testified, “While we were walking in the garden alone, this woman arrived with her two attendants. She shut the garden doors and then dismissed the attendants. 37 A young man who had been hiding came over and they lay down together. 38 From the corner of the garden where we were, we saw this crime taking place and hurried toward them. 39 Though we saw them together, we couldn’t catch the man, for he was too strong for us. He opened the doors and ran out. 40 But we did seize this one, and demanded to know who the young man was. 41 She refused to tell us. This is our testimony.” The assembly believed them, since they were elders and judges of the people and they condemned Susanna to death.
42 But Susanna cried as loud as she could, “Eternal God, you know everything that has been hidden and everything before it happens. 43 You know that they have lied about me. And now, do I have to die, even though I’m innocent of everything their malice has invented against me?”
44 The Most High God heard her prayer. 45 As she was being led away to execution, God stirred up the Holy Spirit residing in a youth named Daniel, 46 and he began to shout, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
48 He stood in their midst and continued, “Are you such fools, you Israelites? Do you condemn a woman of Israel without examination and without clear evidence? 49 Return to the scene of the trial, for those two have borne false witness against her.”
50 So the people hurried back, and the elders mocked Daniel, saying, “Come and sit with us and bestow your insights on us, since God has given you the gifts reserved for old age!” 51 But he replied, “Separate these two far from each other, for I want to question them.”
52 After they were separated, Daniel had one of them brought to him. 54 “Now then, since you saw her so clearly, tell me what tree you saw them lying under.”
55 “Under a clove tree,” he replied.
56 He dismissed the judge, ordered the second one to be brought, and said, “Now then, tell me what tree you surprised them under.”
He replied, “Under an oak.”
60 The whole assembly cried aloud, blessing the Most High who saves those who hope in God. 61 They rose up against the two elders, for by their own words Daniel had convicted them of perjury. According to the Law of Moses, they administered on them the punishment they had plotted to impose on their neighbor. 64 From that day forward, Daniel was regarded as a great sage among the people.
So I have to admit that one of my first thought about this story is – The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even though this tale took place two and a half millennia ago, we know that incidents similar to what happened to Susanna are still taking place over and over and over again in our country and throughout the world. We would love to believe that what happened way back then, in those ancient, uncivilized times, would never happen today. We are a far more just, fair, and moral society today, right? And yet people like Susanna continue to be unjustly accused, continue to be silenced, continue to be taken advantage of while people with power continue to get away with crimes. We can read stories of modern day Susannas in books like Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill,” a really informative, well-written book, but such a hard book. It is heart-wrenching to read about the pain of the women that were taken advantage of by former film producer Harvey Weinstein. In Farrow’s book, one of Weinstein’s victims is quoted as saying: “I think that it doesn’t matter if you’re a well-known actress, it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty or if you’re forty, it doesn’t matter if you report or if you don’t, because we are not believed. We are more than not believed—we are berated and criticized and blamed.”1
As the “Me Too” movement gained momentum, many women broke their silence to tell their stories of violation, pain and struggle, and how they had no recourse against the perpetrators of the crimes. Women like Susanna, voiceless victims, are as prevalent today as they have been throughout history.
But as bad as that news is, there is also good news, both in God’s Holy word, and in our world today. We have heroes like Daniel, like Ronan Farrow, people willing to step forward, to do what is right, to defend and rescue those who are victimized.
I love how scripture tells of Daniel’s decision to come forward, saying “As she was being led away to execution, God stirred up the Holy Spirit residing in a youth named Daniel.” This Holy Spirit has been stirring up people throughout the ages. I believe that stirring up spirit is how God answers so many prayers, inspiring and calling those who are open to God’s rumbling within, to God’s call to take action.
Sometimes the spirit calls people to speak up, to challenge those in authority, to step way beyond their comfort zone. But the spirit can stir people to act in other ways as well. I think that the other Susanna mentioned in the Bible was also moved by the spirit, but her call to action was of a different sort.
Here is all we know about her from the gospel of Luke:
Soon afterward Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Dominion of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary, called Magalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
That fragment of a sentence is all we know about this New Testament Susanna. Yet she must have had a significant impact to be mentioned at all in the gospel of Luke, for you to hear her name 2000 years later! She had an encounter with Jesus that changed her life. Unlike the Susanna in the Old Testament, this Susanna had some independence, some agency. She had some resources and some autonomy in how to use those resources, so she was able to act, to support Jesus and his followers in their mission. While it was still impossible for the women of that time to preach alongside him, to make their voices heard, their generosity nevertheless enabled Jesus’s voice to be heard near and far. He and the disciples needed resources to be able to travel from village to village, and town to town. Even though Susanna and the other women who supported Jesus might not have been able to use their voices to speak up and proclaim the Dominion of Peace and Justice that Jesus preached, they were still able to influence the movement.
Many years ago I read the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, published in 1989. Even though it’s an older book, many of its principles have stuck with me, and I still find in them a very helpful way of looking at things. Covey talks about how each person has a “Circle of Concern” and a “Circle of Influence.” Our Circle of Concern refers to all that we care deeply about, and our Circle of Influence refers to what we can impact. 2
I don’t know about you, but some mornings I wake up and feel like my circle of Concern is as big as the ocean, and my Circle of Influence is about the size of a drop of water. I am concerned about divisions in our nation, and war in the world, about unjust systems that discriminate based on race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc. I am concerned about Creation justice and worry that we are heading down a path of destruction of the planet. The circle of concern grows bigger and bigger and deeper and deeper, and I begin to feel overwhelmed, like I am drowning in all these cares with no life-boat in sight.
But Stephen Covey gives us hope. He says that while each of us individually can’t solve all these problems, we all have some influence in making decisions that have an impact. And as we make decisions and take actions, as we pro-actively use whatever resources we have to make a difference, our impact and our Circle of Influence will grow.
We can look at Daniel as an example. He was a young man when he felt the spirit stir within him. God called him to be the answer to Susanna’s prayer. He was ridiculed by the elders for his youth, yet he persevered. He used whatever influence he had, and in the end, he got justice for Susanna. Because he acted, his influence grew, and he later became a renowned, influential prophet for the Hebrew people.
Jesus was also someone with a large circle of concern. As a Jew in a Roman occupied territory, he did not have a lot of leverage. And yet look at the influence he had on the people in his time, at the impact his teachings, his ministry, his life, death and resurrection still have in the world today. Yet Jesus could not have gone from village to village, town to town, preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, proclaiming the Dominion of God without the support of people who had resources, people like Susanna.
Many of us may feel helpless in the midst of challenges, in the midst of issues and problems that seem overwhelming. But I suspect that all of us have at least some resources, whether material resources, or talents, or time, that we can give to support those who do have influence.
For example, our Social Justice Advocacy Ministry team had the privilege of hosting a panel discussion with Pierce Ward, of the Ohio Innocence Project, and Laurese Glover, a wrongly convicted exonerated prisoner. Laurese and two friends Derrick Wheatt and Eugene Johnson were in the wrong place at the wrong time in Cleveland in 1995 when a murder took place. They were arrested, convicted of murder, and held in prison for twenty years. Laurese and his friends were seventeen years old at that time. Their protests of their innocence fell on deaf ears, and they were not believed. 3 Can you imagine spending those formative years of your life – from age 17 to 37 in prison, when you were completely innocent of the crime you were accused of?
Even though my heart breaks for those held in prison who are innocent, I know that I could never speak up for the falsely accused. I don’t have the courage, the knowledge, the authority to even begin to fight for their freedom. But what I can do is support organizations like the Ohio Innocence Project, which seeks to free every innocent person in Ohio who has been convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. I can also use my voice to make changes in a system that allows such injustice to be perpetrated. I can learn about the candidates running for judge before election time, and I can educate myself on the positions that candidates take in issues of justice.
We who have voice, we who have the right to vote, can use that voice and vote to advocate for the powerless, the marginalized, the victimized. Here is what the United Church of Christ website says about this:
Politics is often taken to be a dirty word, but political processes are simply the way communities organize their common life. For people of faith, public policy is never merely politics. It is a way of living out the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is fitting for local congregations and church structures across the country to develop nonpartisan programs to help the faith community reflect upon the political order. We are called to do justice and love mercy, and to give voice and solidarity to the disempowered and marginalized in the world. 4
We are indeed called to use our own voices, and to encourage and empower others to use theirs. To that end, our Social Justice ministry group will be working hard in the next few months to make sure peoples’ voices are heard by promoting voter registration. I encourage you to look for opportunities to support these efforts and to learn more about this in upcoming bulletins and newsletters.
Susanna in the book of Daniel did not have voice, did not have power. Yet she used the one recourse she had – the power of prayer. She cried out to God, who stirred up the spirit in Daniel, who became an answer to her prayer. Susanna in Luke’s gospel was also stirred by the spirit, stirred to support Jesus on his mission. Her resources impacted his ministry of healing, justice and mercy.
What is the spirit stirring up in you? Whom are you being called to speak up for? What are you being called to support? Where are you being called to use your resources?
May God’s holy spirit move within us, stir us up, inspire us to speak, to act, to impact our world. May we step boldly into our circle of influence, and do what we can to make an impact wherever we have concerns. And may we journey forth as God’s holy people, offering healing and hope, to change our world, now and evermore. May it be so. Amen.
1Farrow, Ronan, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Little Brown and Company, 2019
2Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1989