Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Challenge Continues, Day 87: Judges 1-3; Psalm 73; John 7

Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar...Judges
With the end of the Exodus and the death of Moses, and with the death of Joshua and the end of the claiming of the Promised Land, a new era begins for Israel. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it must have been. Decades pass in the first few chapters of the Book of Judges, and most of what we see is the establishment of a pattern: when the people fall away from covenant with God, then God gets angry and hands them over to their foes; when foes oppress them, then the people of Israel repent and call out to God; when the people repent and call out to God, then God raises up a "judge" who receives a particular charism of leadership to guide them both to victory and then back into righteousness. This cycle repeats throughout Judges, until the age of prophets and kings begins.

It is a simple enough pattern to a slightly predictable story...and yet so provocative for any leader (or person who pays attention to leaders and leadership) to read. Judges points to the cyclical and systemic nature of human culture. A lack of constancy seems to be the lone constant of life for the people of Israel. When the land is at rest for Israel's tribes, there tends to be a dramatic erosion of momentum toward fidelity to covenant. When times are tough, and enemies oppress, then the people remember how God saved them in the past...and suddenly fidelity and reliance on God become a priority again. This pattern repeats throughout salvation history, and it repeats today in human institutions (both Church and State, sacred and secular institutions). Positive patterns of behavior do exist, but are hard to maintain when the status quo tends to default back to less-than-healthy choices.

Today, we meet in succession three judges of Israel, and they serve to establish the pattern we will see throughout the rest of the Book. Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar each arise during a time of need for Israel, when they are struggling against defeat and oppression. Each one expresses a strength of character and charisma that provides a rally point for Israel. They provide a centerpoint personality that gives focus to Israel and allows them to reclaim a bearing on fidelity to covenant with God. They also provide some exciting (and in the case of Ehud) dramatic narrative. The moral of the story? When there is need, a leader will rise; and humanity in its evanescence is always ready to provide a need for faithful, strong leaders.

Ehud and the death of Eglon

Perhaps that is why John 7 sees such tension in Jesus' family and disciples-and such controversy in Jerusalem during the festival when Jesus stands up and starts shouting that anyone who is thirsty should come and drink from him. It is the era of Roman occupation, and despite the Pharisees' efforts to draw the people of Israel back into faithful line with the covenant expectations of God, salvation seems to be far away. The people of Jerusalem and sophisticated enough to know that these are the times when a charismatic leader should be sent from God to lead them to victory. They are also smart enough to know that Rome is no ordinary oppressor.
Shamgar with his ox-goad
The messiah they need will have to possess more "chops" than an Othniel (who could lead soliders), an Ehud (who could-forgive me-wage an effective "dirty" war) or a Shamgar (who claims victory with a particularly extreme feat of strength). They needed someone, they thought, who could do all that and more. And here is Jesus arguing that the the glorification of the chosen one is "not yet" and that the victory of God will only come with the destruction of the one who will be raised up....

As we embark on the season of Easter, the temptation to celebrate the resurrection of our Christ is to fall into triumphalism; but if God is truly the author of this deliverance then we must allow for Easter to break our patterns of settling back into peace-instead using that grace to good effect and laboring toward being that new community in which the living water Jesus offers actually does give life and refreshment to the whole world.

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