In ages past (the mid-1960s specifically), a group of fourteen-year-old boys knelt in chapel for the first time as the Freshman Class of Passionist Seminary. The late afternoon sun cascaded in through golden paned windows high on the chapel walls as Fr. Director stood in front of the altar and addressed us in the thunderous voice of Moses handing down the Ten Commandments…
“There are many rules in the student guides you’ve just been given. But there are two rules that are more important than any of the those. Break one of these two and you will be sent home IMMEDIATELY and for good”, he said unsmiling.
We trembled in our pews like rabbits in a lightning storm as Father continued booming…
“You will NOT swim in the lake at any time. You will never climb the water tower or be anywhere near it”.
The water tower was our 120 ft sentinel which loomed over the Midwest farmlands that surrounded the Prep. Being terrified of heights, I had no desire to ever break that rule. It took us at least a week to realize that if your canoe tipped over into the lake, you weren’t really swimming. To my knowledge, no one was ever expelled for swimming in the lake and no one was ever caught climbing the water tower.
The intentions of the laws were clear. The professed wanted to keep us safe while we were in their care.
The story of Susanna illustrates the difficulty the Jews were having in balancing the letter of the law of Moses against the intent of those laws, which were ultimately made to keep them safe. The laws were intended to be strict, but leavened by the merciful nature of God ~ like the love of a Father for his children who will undoubtedly err. Susanna was falsely accused of adultery, a sin which demanded an execution by stoning. A young Daniel cried out against this stern sentence which was imposed without justice or mercy. (Daniel 13)
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me;” (Psalm 23)
This same conundrum is addressed in the trap the Pharisees tried to lay for Jesus. Presented with a woman caught in adultery, (or perhaps fornication. This is not clear in translation), they asked Him how she should be punished. If Jesus did not agree to stone her, then He was defying the Law of Moses. If He did agree to abide strictly by the Law, He would be defying Roman authority which said only Roman justice could apply the death penalty.
Being caught in adultery, dragged through the streets, and threatened with death by stoning, the woman had been grievously punished for her transgression. In His mercy, Jesus forgave her while instructing her to sin no more. (John 8)
We are judged, forgiven, and we will be forgiven again; as long as we strive to sin no more ~ judge others with the same mercy granted us ~ and stand against injustice suffered by others. Lord, help me not be found wanting…
Ray Alonzo is the father of three children, grandfather of two, and husband to Jan for 45 years. He is a USN Vietnam Veteran, and a 1969 graduate of Mother of Good Counsel Passionist Prep Seminary. Ray currently serves on the Passionist Alumni Council.