The readings for last Thursday’s Mass were a preacher’s nightmare. In the first, from the Book of Judges chapter 1, Jephthah vowed to sacrifice to God the first person he might see leaving his house, if God would grant him victory over the Ammonites. Jephthah went on to win a decisive war, but he was shocked to see his daughter — his only child — emerge from the house to greet him on his return. But a deal was a deal, and after a two-month reprieve, he offered her up to God, just as he had promised. How inspiring, I thought to myself. And how might a homilist handle this?
The gospel didn’t offer fare that was much better. In a parable from the lips of Jesus, Matthew relates how a king sent his servants, and then his son, to invite the neighbors to a wedding feast for his son. Some neighbors gave pretty lame excuses and beat the servants, while others killed the son. Enraged, the king slaughtered all the neighbors and burned their cities. Could such be the kingdom of heaven? I’d always hoped for something a little more tranquil.
You can imagine my delight when I realized that these challenges would fall to Fr. Hilary, the celebrant for the day. He is among the monastery’s most thoughtful and eloquent preachers, and I prepared myself for the definitive wisdom that would explain — or explain away — the conundrums in these two passages. So you can imagine my reaction when he began his homily with words similar to these: “Today we rejoice that it is the feast of Saint Bernard, which gives the perfect excuse for not dealing with these two readings.”
Well, I could scarcely blame him, since Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is among my favotire monastic saints. As Fr. Hilary went on to point out, Bernard was a golden-tongued preacher, and his written prose is surpassing in its beauty. On account of that, monks have revered him through the centuries, and the Church honors him as a doctor of the Church. But if Bernard was such a great light when it came to preaching, what did he do when these passages came up for Mass? Humility prevented him from changing the subject to focus on his own sanctity, particularly since he had yet to be canonized. So I wonder if he didn’t dodge the bullet by preaching instead about the goodness of God, or some other benign topic.
As for me, I was left disappointed, pondering the point of stories like these from the Bible. The parable from the gospel I can sort of figure out in my own mind, but what can we do with a father who will slay his own daughter just to repay a debt to God? What kind of God could demand such a payment? And what kind of twisted logic could someone use to rationalize the killing of an only child, or of any innocent person, for that matter?
There are no good answers to any of these questions, but there are ways to appreciate the larger scope of what God might be trying to tell us in the Book of Judges and in the Bible itself. First off, the Bible presents the story of God’s people, and it’s definitely a story of growth and development. So it is that there are practices sanctioned in the time of Moses that would not make the cut by the time Jesus was born. These included the sacrifice of first-born sons and multiple wives; and I assume that a Jew living a thousand years after Jephthah would have found the sacrifice of his daughter to be an abomination. So the Bible is the log both of individuals who grew in age and wisdom, and of a people that grew in age and wisdom.
The second lesson that I might draw from this story has to do with the endurance of our deal-making with God. Of course we don’t offer to sacrifice children or spouses if only God will let us win the lottery, but we’ll instinctively promise anything if God will allow our favorite team to win. The same with recovery from illness and reversal of ill-fortune. In our heads we will bargain with God without ever considering the absurdity of it all. God doesn’t do deals like that with people — or at least not since the earliest books of the Old Testament.
But if God doesn’t negotiate with us, at least not on our terms, what are we to make of these two passages that could bring some measure of understanding? Common to both readings is the killing of a child, and perhaps that helps to put into perspective the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In one respect the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense at all. But on the other hand it showed that God was no longer open to the business of doing deals to get us to behave a little better. Rather, Jesus was freely given, and from his death and resurrection came life to us all — free of charge. In one fell swoop God at least tried to remove from our troubled minds the temptation to save ourselves. Salvation, like love, was and is freely given. That, it seems to me, is the big take-away from the mystery of the cross and resurrection. We do not save ourselves, because Jesus does that. He lifts that burden from our shoulders, and hopefully we can all rise to new and better life because of it.
Accepting that will always remain one of the great challenges in our relationship with God. I’m convinced that each new generation has to find this out for itself. And each person has to go through this business of negotiation with God. People will continue to give up candy or cigarettes or any of life’s other little pleasures, without realizing that God has no real interest in this sort of stuff. As Jesus reminded his disciples and us, God remains unimpressed with our latest version of bullocks and whole burnt offerings. God is pretty much satisfied with a pure heart. And that seems to be it. No bargaining necessary.
+This was a very quiet week for me, until on Friday the 21st I flew to Orange County, CA, to preside at a Mass of religious profession for Frá Jeffrey Littell, who made his final vows as a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta. Present to receive the vows was Frá Ludwig Hoffman, the Grand Commander, who had come from Rome for the occasion. In attendance as well was Bishop Ed Clark, auxiliary of Los Angeles, who is also a chaplain the Western Association of the Order of Malta. The liturgy was as beautiful as it was unhurried. At two hours it must have been a struggle to keep those cell phones turned off. The Mass of profession took place at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Costa Mesa, CA. I was also privileged to preach at the Mass, and readers may access the Sermon at the Rite of Final Profession through this link.
+This weekend an additional wave of students arrived at Saint John’s University, further relegating to the past the peace and quiet of summer. Classes will begin within a few days, and even now I still miss those first heady days of the new semester — but only a little.
+The first four photos in today’s post illustrate the Sacred Infirmary, which the Knights of Malta constructed in Valletta, their capital in Malta. By the standards of the day, the hospital was huge, holding nearly 500 beds for men and a smaller number for women. The photos dramatically illustrate the primary work of the Order of Malta throughout its history — service to the sick and the poor..