We humans are so vulnerable, often heartbreakingly vulnerable. Today’s readings give us an opportunity to reflect on how we deal with that.
Jephthah, facing a very uncertain battle, makes a vow. “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” The vow: generic religious behavior, not mandated, but regulated in the Bible. The narrator is silent at three points: (1) while “the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah,” silence re whether the vow is at the spirit’s prompting; (2) silence re any evaluation of the vow (wise, foolish, pious, impious, etc.); (3) silence re whether the LORD gave victory because of the vow. Re the third point, we might suspect that the mention of the spirit (v.29) before the vow (v.30) means that the vow was unnecessary. Pulling the camera back, do we assume that in our vulnerability we need to bargain with God to get what we want?
Of course, the tragic vulnerability in the story is that of Jephthah’s daughter. For vows must be fulfilled? The Book of 1 Samuel tells of Saul pronouncing a curse on anyone eating during a battle. His son Jonathan, not having heard the curse, eats. Here’s how it plays out when all is known:
Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand; here I am, I will die.” Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan!” Then the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die. (1 Sam. 14:43-45)
Where are “the people” when Jephthah’s daughter and Jephthah most need them? My challenge is not simply dealing with my vulnerability.
Mark tells of the time Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” The disciples get the crucial part right: they wake Jesus up—the rest is detail. Before wondering what we might safely conclude from the story, let’s bring Paul into the conversation.
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
So “just wake Jesus up and everything will be smooth sailing” is a non-starter. What Paul seems to have concluded: whatever happens, Jesus is in the boat, and it will be more than OK. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). And we, how are we responding to Jephthah’s daughter’s many sisters?