Things Are Often Not as They Seem – A Lesson from the Life of Moses

moses-0715We are currently reading the story of Moses in daily Mass. The story reminds us that not all things are as they appear, and that God’s ways are not our ways.

Moses’ early years are marked with clear signs that he is gifted and chosen. Drawn from the water by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses’ very own mother is chosen to be his caretaker and is paid for that privilege by getting to live in Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh pays for Moses’ diapers, his food, and his education. And he is unwittingly preparing and equipping his nemesis. God can be very sly!

But at age forty, Moses gets ahead of God (never a good idea). He grows angry at an Egyptian who is oppressing a Hebrew and ends up killing the Egyptian. Moses has to flee.

Now why has God let this happen? From our perspective, Moses was in the prime of his life. At forty, he has experience but has not lost his youth. He is educated, gifted, and has access to power and lots of connections in Pharaoh’s own palace. Moses is in a perfect position to lead the people out of slavery! Or so we think. Except for one problem: God doesn’t think so.

But why not? In a word, pride. Moses, in getting out ahead of God and trying to take things in his own hands, is exhibiting pride. God says, in effect, “You’re too proud. I can’t use you in this condition. It’s time for some lessons in humility.”

And so Moses learns humility. He is forced to flee (humiliating). He must live out in the desert (humbling). And he marries and has children (quite humbling indeed! J).

Ok, so a few years’ worth of humility lessons and then Moses gets started. No, not a few, forty years’ worth!

Now Moses is eighty. He’s feeble, leaning on a staff, and he stutters when he talks. And God comes and tells Moses that it’s time to lead the people out. Moses says, in effect, “Are you crazy? I’m old, I can’t speak, I’m feeble … I can’t do it.” And that’s just the attitude that God needs from Moses: that he can’t do it. And he couldn’t do it at forty, either; he just didn’t know it. God has to do it and Moses will be His instrument. But now this instrument will be docile in the hands of the artist, now Moses can be useful to God.

This is not the way we think. We equate ability and leadership with vigor, power, money, access, talent, etc. For us, the prime of life is in our thirties, forties, and fifties. But God’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts. Moses at eighty is what God needs. Moses at forty was not of use.

What are some conclusions we can draw?

First, be careful how you assess your own life. In typical earthly fashion most of us consider our prime as being those years when we were most in command of our gifts, when we were working, “making a difference,” earning an income. We measure human life in its prime in terms of money, power, access, physical strength, stamina, etc.

But has it occurred to us that our most powerful moments might be on our deathbed? For there we have many sufferings to offer and our prayers will pierce the clouds as never before. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the suffering, and the repentant.

I often counsel the bedridden, and the dying in this way: I tell them that we are depending on their prayers as never before because their prayers are more important than ever before. And even if they have a hard time, because of age and discomfort, formulating prayers, just one word on our behalf, “Help!” may change the history of the world. St. Augustine said, More is accomplished in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Letter to Proba).

Yes, be very careful how you assess your life’s worth. Our math is not God’s math; our thoughts are not His. God sizes us up quite differently.

Second, be careful how you assess the lives of others. Here, too, we tend to value those people who are powerful, have money, strength, beauty, talents, and “obvious” gifts. But the Lord warns us in many places that we should esteem the poor, the disabled, and the suffering. He says, Many who are last shall be first (Matt 19:30).

God also counsels that we ought to make friends among the needy and poor by our use of worldly wealth, so that when worldly wealth fails us (and it will), the poor and needy, those who benefitted from our generosity, will welcome us to eternal dwellings (See Lk 16:9).

Yes, befriend the needy, the disabled, and the poor. In this world they need us, but in the next world, we are going to need them! Those who have suffered and those who were poor due to injustice, if they have been faithful, are going to be in high places in Heaven. We’re going to have to get an appointment to see them! Things are not always as they appear. The poor, the disabled, and the suffering are quite often among the real powerhouses of this world.

So pay attention to what the story of Moses tells us. Not as man sees does God see (1 Sam 16:7). We are vainglorious and we look to worldly power and its categories. God is not impressed with our sandcastles, our big brains, and our bulging muscles. He bids us in stories like these to say, with St. Paul, Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).

Things are often not as they appear to us. Put on your “God glasses” and by God’s grace see more as He sees.

Patriarchs Are People Too – A Reflection on the Fact That the Bible Speaks Frankly About the Faults of Our Heroes

PatriarchOver the years, I have written a number of articles on the men of the Bible: many of the patriarchs of the Old Testament such as Abraham, Moses, David, Eli, and most recently, Lot and Jacob. Likewise, I’ve written on Peter and Paul, and on John the Baptist.

I find the biblical portraits of these men (and also many women as well) fascinating and often brutally honest. The Scriptures seldom feature biblical heroes without flaws. Even if these epic figures eventually got their halos on straight, it certainly wasn’t that way from the start. With the possible exception of Joseph the patriarch, these men often struggled mightily to hear, comprehend, and heed the voice of God. And God often needed to purify them greatly for the tasks that He had for them.

And when I write of the struggles and imperfections of these biblical figures, I find that some of my readers take offense at my often frank discussion of their shortcomings. There is an old Latin expression Offensiva pii aurium, which means “offensive to pious ears.”

To illustrate, some years ago I wrote an article that described Solomon’s fall from grace. He who had begun in great wisdom declined to such an extent that he had over a thousand wives when he died, and his policy of increased taxes (multiplying gold) and a large military draft (multiplying horses) so oppressed his people that during the reign of his son, the Kingdom divided in two. Scripture said of him,

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-9).

Despite some pretty basic facts and Scriptures attesting to Solomon’s errors, some objected when I wrote of Solomon’s failings, saying that the Orthodox refer to him as “Saint Solomon” and posting icons in the comment section. Others took offense when I suggested that Solomon died less holy and wise than he began.

More recently, some readers bristled when I suggested that Lot suffered from sloth, and that his pitching of his tent toward Sodom was problematic and indicative of sinful attraction. The Bible says, “Flee fornication” (1 Cor 6:18) not “pitch your tent toward it.”

Some would prefer to interpret the meaning of the texts differently or at least to place a different emphasis. But Lot, who I would argue was not even one of the patriarchs, certainly lived a life filled with ambiguities deserving of scrutiny, and in his story is an admonition for us.

But despite objections that I should not besmirch the patriarchs by recalling their pasts, let me be clear that I mean no offense, either to the biblical figures or to readers. I do take the stories at face value, and I think that they are told in all their gory detail so that we can learn and understand that the patriarchs (and matriarchs, too) found their way to God often through great struggle and sin. Yet through it all, God did not give up on them, but rather kept calling, purifying, preparing, and finally perfecting them. Perhaps, then, there is hope for us!

The honest truth about the patriarchs is that they didn’t “have it all together” from the start. Abraham did heed God’s call to go to the Holy Land, but then he went to Egypt when famine struck, thinking that God could not take care of him. He ran to Pharaoh and put his wife into Pharaoh’s harem! He strayed with Hagar and even laughed at God’s promises on one occasion. Eventually Abraham came to the strong faith that we praise him for, being willing to offer his son Isaac back to God.

Moses committed murder and needed forty years of purification in the desert before God could use him. David both murdered and committed adultery. These were men who struggled. They were not perfect and were often capital sinners. But God still loved them and worked with them.

In this sense, these are beautiful stories. It is exciting and thrilling for us to see how God will not be overcome, and can write straight with crooked lines (even though He shouldn’t have to).

Here then, dear reader, is my apologia for my depiction of the patriarchs. Soon enough I will enter into an even worse fray, where political correctness is even more demanded: I will begin to feature the women of the Bible! Sorry y’all, but they weren’t perfect either. But here, too, is hope for us all. God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called. He does not summon the perfected; He perfects the summoned.

It’s fine if you wish to disagree with my understanding of the text. But don’t presume impiety when the biblical text itself supplies a sordid past. And always remember, a saint is just a sinner who fell but got back up again. A saint is someone who stayed in the conversation.

Onward with the frank discussion of biblical figures, some of whom are now saints, but not from day one to be sure!

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

4x5 originalOne of God’s stranger affections in the Old Testament is the special love He had for Jacob. We are currently reading this story in daily Mass.

The name Jacob, according to some, means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even in the womb, he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus he was named Jacob (“grabber”).

And although he was a “mama’s boy,” he was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.

Esau sought to kill him for this, and so Jacob fled north to live with Laban, an uncle who was even a greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years he labored for Laban, hoping to win his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! Only seven years later would Jacob finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. At the end of the day, God loves sinners like you and me as well. And in the story of Jacob, a hard case to say the least, God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5) and His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation.

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. And for reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He realized that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. But whatever the reason, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED man – The text says, So the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. (Gen 32:21-24)

Jacob is distressed. He has, somewhat willingly, and yet also for reasons of his own, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him. And thus Jacob is distressed and sleepless.

And so it is for many of us, that our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about how God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do! Oh how we love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who is God. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone; It’s time to think, it’s time to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man?” The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him– the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. And here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, try new things, and discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our will. And thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night, and with the lesson that Jacob must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God beneath the stars and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with God, to wrestle with the issues in his life, with God. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. Jacob has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean, to trust, and to realize that he is dependent on God.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

If the “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would have to ask someone to “let him go,” and for Jacob, a mere man, to say to God, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, pulling from Jacob the required request. So the man says, “Let me go!” But God wants Jacob, and us, to come to the point when we say, “I will not let you go!”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, “Don’t go, I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I am sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place!

This critical moment has brought Jacob the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends on God. And this leads us to the next stage.

III. DIFFERENT Man – The text records, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. Previously, when his blind father, Isaac, had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth, replying, “My name is Jacob.” And in saying this there is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster!”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all his name “literally” implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

In being renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, and cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again; he would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become in the Book of Hebrews. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Yes, Jacob learned to lean. He limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Yes, that is a battle you cannot afford to win! Learn to lean and to delight in depending on God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there shall thy hand lead me. A Meditation on the Story of Jonah.

012515As a followup to yesterday’s (Sunday 3rd Week) reference to Jonah the Prophet, I would like to sketch a fuller portrait of his life. Yesterday’s reading dropped us into the middle of the story. Let’s look at the backstory and see how the Lord does not give up on Jonah, nor on the people whom He has sent Jonah to deliver. God keeps calling until we are ready, until our last breath.

Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant, and his struggle with sin is not hidden. In the story of Jonah, we see a portrait of sin and of the love of God for sinners.

Psalm 139 says, beautifully,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).

Let’s look at the early story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance – This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy means to openly and boldly resist what one is told to do. It also indicates a lack of faith since it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) + “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving; he lacks trust.

His scoffing and defiant attitude likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh was the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness, they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking he can outrun God.

II. Distance – He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline along modern-day Spain. Thus, in order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah flees some 1500 miles away from God’s will. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive, but many seem quite willing to pay.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. But yet, like Jonah, many line up to pay the price and take the long painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? Probably about 80%, if not more. So much suffering, so much cost, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.

III. Disturbance – The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance puts him and others headlong into a storm that, as we will see, grows ever deeper and involves others. Here, too, the teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. And as our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces more powerful.

Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important teaching: in our sin, in our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others we know and love. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.

The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses by throwing the cargo overboard, all on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.

And so, too, in our own culture, much pain is caused and much loss is experienced from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, so many of our families are in the shredder. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that comes from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who, above all, feel the pain and injustice of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, lack of charity, and so forth. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us, but others around us as well.

No one is merely an individual; we are members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and the cause of grief to others around him. So, too, can we become so when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.

IV. Delirium – Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

And yet, while all these storms (caused by him) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a kind of moral sleep, blissfully talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” And yet all the while the storm winds buffet, and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain morally asleep, unaware, inconsiderate, and locked in self-deception and rationalizations.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins” where, supposedly, nobody gets hurt. Those who are morally alert do not say these sorts of things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral sleep, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to mutter on in their immoral sleep about their right to do as they please.

V. Dressing Down – The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?”–They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions and your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on. Wake up!

Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours, but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up; look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us and turn back to God lest we all perish!

VI. Despair – They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.

Jonah, having been dressed down, is beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Jonah and many other sinners, somewhat like Judas, do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, he says to them “Kill me, I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.

VII. Dignity – still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as a first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah (or any sinner) does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, perhaps to return crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to try to correct in love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of even great sinners, to strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance – Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. They somehow sense His just verdict, yet they fear their own judgment in this regard and ask for God’s mercy.

It used to be that in the average American courtroom, when someone did finally have to be sentenced to prison (or worse), the judge would say, “May God have mercy on your soul.” And thus, even in the sad situations in which we can do little but remove people from their ability to harm others (usually through incarceration), we ought to do so with a sober appreciation of their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

And God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa, where it all began.

IX. Determination – Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He’s the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. And He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”

And God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah WILL go finally to Ninevah and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11 – Hmm, why does this description seem so familiar?)

Here is the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the Oratorio “Jonas” by Carissimi. It depicts the Ninevites repenting. It is a luscious and heartfelt piece. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it knew its significance for them, too.

The Rise and Fall of a Prophet. And a warning for us.

He is one of the more curious figures of the Bible, The details of his life and story are caught up in textual complexities in the book of Numbers. Though a prophet, he was not even an Israelite, he wrote no book and is not numbered among Israel’s prophets. And yet a prophet he was, for he spoke the oracles of God and brought blessings to Israel at a critical time in the History of Israel.

Perhaps no prophet spoke so eloquently of the glory that would come from Israel, like a star rising in the East, and a king who shall rise higher and whose abode shall endure. Yes a star would rise from Jacob! (Numbers 24).

Yes, no prophet spoke more highly, and more purely, for though paid to curse, he would only bless, not counting the cost for he would only say what God commanded and revealed.

And yet no prophet fell more mightily or arguably caused more harm in Israel. So egregious his crime that his act merits special condemnation from Jesus himself. Great was his glory, and mighty his fall.

He is Balaam Son of Beor. His name means, strangely, “devourer,” And though sent to curse, this devourer could only bless and thus build up. And yet, eventually he lived up to his name.

Among the many nations that stretched from Mesopotamia to the modern-day Holy Land, Balaam’s fame was widespread. His home was far off to the east in northern Mesopotamia near the Euphrates river.  As shall see, his journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to become for a time a true prophet of the true God, was an odd journey, often market by comical interlude.

The story begins in the 22nd chapter of the Book of Numbers. King Balak of Moab was confronted with the arrival of the Israelites who had begun their entrance into the Promised Land. Unsettled by their vast numbers, and unnerved by their power and the blessing of God they seemed to possess, Balak sent for the famed Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites, so that the Moabites could defeat them. The King said with great trust, For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:7).

To his credit, and despite being offered a large sum of money, Balaam refused to go with the men who were sent to fetch him. For, having prayed,  the Lord, warned him not to go. Now Balaam had never even heard of the Israelites, but God said, Do not go with these men and do not curse the people they fear, for they are blessed (Num 22:13). Despite more entreaties from the officials, and an even higher sum of money that was offered, Balaam responded Even if Balak gave me his house full of gold and silver, I could not do anything, small or great, contrary to the command the Lord my God (Num 22:19).

It is remarkable testimony at this point to Balaam that he so quickly learns of the True God and is willing to obey him!

Yet, Balaam’s faith, though growing quickly, still needed to be purified. Later, the next day, God came to Balaam and said to him, If these men have come to you, you may go with them; but only on the condition that you do exactly as I tell you. (Num 22:21)

Thus, Balaam went forth with the men who had summoned him. But God, who knows the secrets of the heart, seems to have known that as Balaam went forth, he did so with the intention of cursing this nation as was requested. Perhaps his intention was rooted in fear of these emissaries who drew him into the power of the King. Perhaps the rich profit enticed him. We do not know, but God had only given him permission to go with these men and await further instruction.  Balaam did not have permission to curse Israel. Thus, the anger of the Lord flared against him as he seemingly recanted on his vow of obeying the Lord.

In a comical turn of events, God sent an angel to block the way. But this “seer” (a word which means “one who sees”) could not see the angel;  yet, the donkey upon which he rode could see the angel!  And seeing the angel, the Donkey stubbornly refused to proceed.

When the frustrated Balaam began to beat the animal, the comical paradoxes grow. For Balaam,  a prophet who was supposed to speak for God, is now spoken to by God through his donkey! The donkey rebuked Balaam with these words What have I done to you that you should beat me these three times? Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before? No, said Balaam (Num 22:29-30). The donkey is not only more reasonable than Balaam, not only rebukes him rightly, but even seems to psychoanalyze him! It is rich in comedy, and dripping in paradox.

Finally, the angel of the Lord reveals himself to Balaam. He falls to his knees and admits he has sinned and promises to go home immediately. But through the angel, God, who purifies our hearts, bids him to go forward anyway, but with this warning, you may say only what I tell you. (Num 22:35)

And in this way, God warns every prophet, including you and me who are prophets through our baptism. As prophets, we are to say only what God tells us, what God teaches us through his Scriptures and through the holy teachings of the Church.

Pay attention fellow prophet, if you won’t speak rightly, God can speak through a donkey! But he shouldn’t have to. If you don’t praise him the very rocks will cry out. But they shouldn’t have to. Never let it be said that donkeys and rocks are smarter and more useful to God than you are! Yes, God can raise up children for the kingdom from the very rocks, (cf Luke 3:8), but he shouldn’t have to.

Upon seeing Balaam, Balak runs to him,  relieved and wants him to go right to work cursing the Israelites. But Balaam, who has now been properly chastised and made the journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to a true prophet of true God says this profound, yet simple thing to the powerful king who stands before him: But what power have I to say anything? I can speak only what God puts in my mouth….I will tell you whatever he lets me see (Num 22:38; 23:3).

Still confident that Balaam would curse the Israelites Balak orders many rituals and sacrifices and then, perhaps presuming Balaam would give way to greed, and take the bride, or to fear and curse the Israelites, Balak  orders Balaam the utter the cursing oracle.

Yet out of Balaam’s mouth came not a curse but resounding blessings on Israel! Enraged, King Balaak ordered a new and “correct” oracle that would send curses on Israel. Yet again,  from Balaam’s mouth proceeded only another even more powerful blessing that foretold of Israel’s eventual triumph over its enemies including Moab!

Then a third, and a fourth oracle, but always the same result: a profound blessing rather than a curse. Only the words of the true God could come forth from Balaam’s mouth!

Yes, Balaam’s transformation was at it height, he was now a true prophet of the true God and he gave perhaps the most profound instruction any prophet has ever given. To a king who promised him riches and favor, or could also destroy him, he would only declare: I can speak only what God puts into my mouth.

Pay attention fellow prophet by baptism, is it true that nothing can come forth from your mouth except with God has put there? Really?

So here was Balaam at his height, at the time he was most conformed to God! And as such he uttered blessings that were critical to Israel, as she prepared to enter the Promised Land. It is astonishing that God would use a pagan “prophet” to utter his blessings. I suppose if God can use a donkey, he can use Balaam, and he can even use me.

And yet, mighty and steep was Balaam’s fall out of grace and away from his office to speak only that which God told him to speak. His crime is not explicitly recorded in Numbers, but it is described elsewhere. It is Jesus himself who best summarizes what Balaam did. He mentions it in his rebuke of the Church at Pergamum:

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Rev 2:14).

And so it would seem that although Balaam would not curse Israel, he encouraged Balak to insinuate Moabite women into Israel to seduce the men there to false worship and fornication. Since he could not weaken them from without, perhaps Balak could weaken them from within, or so Balaam taught and advised.

The result was a grave falling away from the faith such that 24,000 men were killed to purge the evil within Israel.(cf Num 25)

Why did Balaam do it? It is not clear. One text from the New Testament suggests it was greed.

With eyes full of adultery, [these wicked men]  never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:14-15)

Another text ascribes it to envy:

Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, Jude 1:11

Whatever the cause, the wound was deep in Israel and never forgotten. When Israel finally conquered the Moabites they sought out Balaam and executed him. Thus the one who blessed them so profoundly and who could only obey God, now lay dead, a traitor to his office, and an enemy to God’s people. Corruptio optime pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst).

And yet, good reader, and fellow prophet, lest we think Balaam’s fate unique to him, we ought take heed lest we fall. Consider a brief incident in the Gospel from Monday of this week (3rd Week of Advent).

It is a classic and memorable exchange between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day:

When Jesus had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Matt 21:23-27)

Such a sad and pathetic lot of men. Note therefore that Jesus catches them in the classic trap of every false prophet. And that is the trap of preferring their own safety and benefit to the truth that they are to proclaim.

See how different they are from Balaam at his best when he stood before a powerful king who could bring him great blessing or great curse. And yet, he feared God more than man, he loved the truth more than his life. He spoke the truth, whatever the cost. For at least that brief moment, he risked everything for the truth God had revealed.

And lest we scorn these religious leaders who were compromised so easily before Jesus we ought to know well that this is a very common human struggle. The fact is, most of us face a very grave temptation to navigate life in such a way that we avoid trouble, and seek to maximize blessings and access to money and power. Most human beings are more than willing to compromise the truth, even wholly set it aside, in order to take this path.

It is the great human struggle, frequently the truth just “costs too much.” And so we cash out.

Pray for bishops, priests and deacons, who have the first obligation to speak God’s truth. For too easily, we seek to avoid difficulties and troubles, and maximize personal blessings at the cost of compromising the gospel message, avoiding controversy, or challenging texts, of not confronting sin, of fearing man more than God, for whom we should speak.

Pray too for parents, for leaders of families who often do the same things, sometimes by silence, sometimes by tolerating sinful and bad behavior, sometimes with outright teaching that which is popular but wrong and contrary to God’s will.

Yes, too often we all seek to navigate life in such a way that we merely avoid trouble and maximize blessings or access.  But we do so by scorning the prophetic office to which we have been called by baptism.

And thanks be to God for those who have spoken the truth to us whatever the cost. For indeed some, yes many, suffered to hand on the Faith to us. Some have suffered and paid the greatest price to summon us to the repentance we did not want to hear.

Yes you and I are to be willing to suffer and preach the truth whatever the cost.

The tragic story Balaam reminds us we must keep constant vigil over our weak and fearful nature. For even if at one moment we stand strong in the face of evil, and proclaim the truth, too quickly we fall back into fear and compromise.

It is not clear what led Balaam back into the darkness, but let that also be a warning to us. For in any number of ways we too can be compromised. Our only refuge can be to beg God for his grace and mercy: Lord make me strong, and keep me strong; give me courage, and keep me courageous; let my zeal be for your whole law, and not part of it only. Let there be no openings that divide or compromise my heart; or my zeal you and your kingdom.

A Meditation on Sin’s Effects and God’s Mercy in the Story of Jonah

100713In daily Mass these next few days we are reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Of all the prophets Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant, and his struggle with sin is not hidden. In the passage from Monday’s reading we see something of a portrait on sin and also the love of God for sinners. Lets look at the passage and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance – This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy, means to openly and boldly resist what one is told to do. It also indicates a lack of faith since it comes from the Latin “dis “against” + fidere “believe”. Hence, Jonah is not just insubordinate, he is unbelieving, he lacks trust.

His scoffing and defiant attitude likely results from hatred, or excessive nationalism. Nineveh was the capital of the Syria, the mortal enemies of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness, they will grow stronger. Rather than trust God, he brazenly disobeys and foolishly thinks he can outrun God.

II. Distance – He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline along modern-day Spain. Thus, in order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah flees some 1500 miles out of God’s will. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money to try and accomplish the fleeing. Indeed, many people spend lots of money, and go miles out of their way to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive, and many seem quite willing to pay.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous, and costly. But yet, like Jonah, many line up to pay the price and take the long painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? Probably about 80%, if not more. So much suffering, so much cost, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. Bottom line; pardon the financial pun, sinful choices are usually costly.

III. Disturbance – The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance puts him and others headlong into a storm that, as we will see, grows ever deeper and involves others. Here too, the teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances and troubles. And as our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces more powerful.

It will be noted how Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important teaching that in our sin, in our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life, but into the lives of others we know and love. What we do, or fail to do affects others.

The Mariners fearing for their life, also lose wealth, and suffer great losses throwing the cargo overboard, on account of Jonah sinfulness.

And so too in our own culture, how much pain is caused, how much loss is experienced from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness, and sexual misbehavior, so many of our families are in the shredder, there is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that comes from broken families or malformed families. It is of course the children who, above all, feel the pain and injustice of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings besides, caused by our greed, addiction our lack of forgiveness, our pride, impatience, lack of charity, and so forth. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us, but others around us.

No one is merely an individual, we are members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and the cause of grief to others around him. So too can we become when we defiantly indulge sinfulness

IV. Delirium – Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

And yet, while all these storms (caused by him) are raging about him, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a kind of moral sleep, blissfully talking about their rights and that what they do is “nobody else’s business” etc. And yet all the while, the storm winds buffet, and others suffer from what they do, and so easily they remain morally asleep, unaware, inconsiderate, and locked in self-deception and rationalizations.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins” where supposedly nobone gets hurt. Those who are morally alert do not say these sorts of things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral sleep, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble, and all the while they mutter on in a immoral sleep about their right to do what they please.

V. Dressing Down – The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!– They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for the prophet, when those he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes a pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?!” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your illusions and yourself justifying slogans, and have a look at what’s really going on. Wake up!

Next they say to him, “pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours, but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up, look at what you’re doing, see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us, and turn back to God, less we all perish!

VI. Despair – They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.

Jonah having been dressed down, is beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more of a worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10) And thus, Jonah, somewhat like Judas, and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, he says to them “Kill me, I do not deserve to live.” But this is not repentance, it is despair.

VII. Dignity – still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

And yet, surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least as a first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah, or any sinner, does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen, deserve our love, and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, perhaps to return crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to try to correct in love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. The first instinct, should always be to respect the dignity of even great sinners, to strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance – Then they cried to the LORD: “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit. ”Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord, sensing somehow His just verdict, yet fearing their own judgment in this regard, and asking mercy.

It used to be that, in the average American courtroom when someone did finally have to be sentenced to prison or worse, the judge would often say, “May God have mercy on your soul.” And thus, even in the said situations where we can do little but remove people from their ability to harm others, usually through incarceration, we ought to do so with a sober appreciation of their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

And God does deliver Jonah. After his whale of a ride, in which Jonah must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, God finally delivers him right back to the shore of Joppa, where it all began.

IX. Determination – Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. (Jonah 3:1-3)

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He’s the God of the second chance. Thank you Lord for your grace and your mercy. And he remembers our sins no more. In effect God says to Jonah, ” Now where were we?”

Here’s the Peccavimus from the Oratorio “Jonas” by Carissimi

King David – A Great King, but with a critical flaw that is all too common today.

070913Today in the Divine Office we read of the tragic loss of Absalom, the Son of King David. And yet it remains true that too many of our own children today are lost, if not in death, surely in many other social ills and a lack of faith. What went wrong with Absalom and How was David to blame? What can we learn from this tragic tale?

First some back ground.

Of all the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament, David is among the greatest. Warrior and King, composer and conqueror, unifier and organizer, a man after God’s own heart. He united not only the 12 often fractured Tribes of Israel, but, as a kind if priest-king, stitched together the religious faith of Israel with its governance. King among them, he also collected and disseminated the great prayer-book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, composing many of them himself. So great was David, that among the most well known titles of Jesus would be, “Son of David.”

And yet, like almost all the great figures of the Bible, David was a man who struggled and was flawed. His demons would lead him even to murder as he amassed power and wives. And though he brought unity and governance to 12 contentious tribes, his own family was in a ruinous condition: afflicted by a murderous internecine conflict which had David for its much of its sinful source, and which he seemed powerless to stop.

In the end his family intrigues would cause the delicate union of the Israel he had woven, to come unraveled. And in David’s flaws are important lessons for our times as well.

Let’s recall a few details of King David’s life and domestic difficulties and see where things unravel.

David was the youngest son of Jesse, of whom God said, I have provided a king for myself among [Jesse’s] sons (1 Sam 16:1). Of David it is clear that he was chosen especially by God, for the Lord instructed Samuel to look for him saying, Do not consider his appearance or his height, ….The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart ( 1 Sam 16:7).

Yes, there was something about David’s heart that God loved. Whatever his later flaws, David had a heart for God, and God a heart for David. Upon Samuel’s anointing of David, the Scripture says: And from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. ( 1 Sam 16:13)

Unifier – Upon the death of Saul, Ten Tribes from Israel in the north divided against Judah in the South, and war ensued. But through military action, and other more diplomatic efforts, David was successful in reuniting the Kingdom in 1000 BC. He drove out the Hittites to establish Jerusalem as the Capital. He also wove the kingship together with Israel’s faith in order to establish deeper ties among the Israelites. Thus Jerusalem also became the place of the Temple of God, and the Ark. It was during this time that David both collected, and probably wrote, a good number of the Psalms.

Yes here was the great man of whom God said I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). But God only seldom (such as with Mary) uses sinless humanity. We carry the treasure of God’s love in earthen vessels (cf 2 Cor 4:7). David’s strength was admixed with weakness and flaws, flaws which cascaded down through the lives of others, and gravely affected the Kingdom he was privileged to set forth.

Trouble begins with the fact that David had eight wives whose names we know: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah; later Michal and Bathsheba. The Biblical text suggests he had other wives as well, upon settling in Jerusalem. From these David had 19 sons. Let the internecine intrigue and blood-letting begin.

Disclaimer – It is true that, as many will hasten to point out, that polygamy was common among the ancient patriarchs. Yes, it was. But that it was common does not shield from the fact that, as the Scriptures consistently show, Polygamy always brings terrible results: infighting, rivalries, and often murderous intrigue. I have written more in this problem here: Don’t Do Polygamy.

God in setting forth marriage in Genesis 1 & 2 prescribed one man for one woman in a stable and fruitful relationship. God created for Adam, only Eve, and not also Jane and Sue and Mary and Ellen and Samantha. And God said that a man (singular) shall leaven his father and mother (singular) and cling to his wife (singular) the TWO (not three or more) of the them shall become one (Gen 2:24).

Diversions from this God-given model bring only sadness and even death. David’s many marriages and sons by different mothers, is no exception, and the flawed family structure will bring real devastation not only to David’s family, but to all Israel.

First Degree Murder – David, already with many wives and competing sons, deepens the trouble when he has Uriah the Hittite killed, and takes his wife Bathsheba. The remarkably wicked act of murder rooted in lust and fear, shows a deep flaw in King David for which he is repentant, writing Psalm 51, the Miserere. But Bathsheba’s inclusion into the royal family only adds to the intrigue in the family, and the royal court. For she later advances the cause of her son, Solomon, against David’s older sons.

Rape – Even prior to that pot boiling over, tragedy had struck elsewhere in David’s family, among his sons. His eldest Son and likely heir, Amnon grew desirous of, and eventually raped his half sister Tamar daughter of David by his wife Maacah. “Blended families” have a higher degree of sexual abuse for the rather obvious reason that step-relations include less sexual reserve than full-blooded ones.

Weak Father – After the rape, according to Scripture, And when king David heard of these things he was exceedingly grieved: but he would not afflict the spirit of his son Amnon, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn (2 Sam 13:21). This was a mistaken understanding of love. For the love of a Father for his son must include discipline, and insistence on what is right. Amnon had seriously sinned and owed restitution. David remained quiet when he should have spoke and acted.

Resentful Son – Hence, due to David’s inaction, one of David’s other sons (and full brother of Tamar), Absalom, grew furious at what was done to his sister. He thus plotted, and eventually killed Amnon, and then fled to the Land of Geshur. David now had lost two sons and had a daughter who had been raped.

For indeed, though eventually pardoned by his father, King David, Absalom had grown bitter against David and raised an effective rebellion against him. In the war that ensued, Absalom and his rebellion were put down, and Absalom killed.

David seemed well aware of his role in Abasolom’s rebellion and demise. He had said earlier, when one of Absolom’s followers came cursing him: If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Sam 16:10-12) Upon Absalom’s death David cried: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33).

Court and family intrigue continues right up to David’s death. The now oldest, and likely successor and son of David, Adonijah, was ousted from succession by David’s wife Bathsheba who, working with Nathan, promoted her son Solomon, while David lay feeble and largely forgetful. Claiming she had earlier secured a private vow from David regarding Solomon’s succession, she set loose a power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon. In the end Solomon prevailed over Adonijah, and, after David’s death Solomon had his half-brother (Adonijah) killed.

Like Father Like Son – Solomon, though a great king in his own right, inherited some of his father’s foibles. He ended with having 1000 wives and as Scripture says of him: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:4-6).

The End of the Kingdom – So unraveled did Solomon become, and so disconcerting were his family and foreign intrigues, that shortly after his death, during the reign of his polygamous and expansionist son, Rehoboam. Israel again broke apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They would never reunite.

How remarkable that King David, so highly regarded, not only by humanity, but by God himself, would have such deep flaws. And how remarkable too that, being as gifted as he was, David also brought such pain and sorrow to his family and, by extension to Israel.

What are the lessons for us? Let’s begin with the negative.

The first lesson is that allowing the family to decay and drift from God’s intended structure and form brings great harm. David’s polygamy, his unlawful and sinful acquisition of Bathsheba, his playing of favorites, and his refusal to correct and punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar, all contributed to serious and deadly consequences. And these deadly consequences expanded far beyond David’s own family, and rippled through all Israel leading ultimately to its break down and demise.

Some may argue that norms for marriage and family were less clear at this early stage of Israelite history, and that we ought not project later norms back on these times. I beg to differ. For Genesis 1 and 2 clearly set for the norms of Marriage as God intends: one man for one woman in a stable fruit-bearing relationship till death do them part. One man clinging to one woman, being fruitful and multiplying through their children. This is God’s plan as set forth in Genesis 2.

The first lesson for us is that our family struggles and modern departure from biblical norms regarding the family also have grave effects that extend beyond merely our own families. As divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, homosexual unions, and (coming soon) polygamy, proliferate in our culture, increasingly grave effects befall us as our children. There is often lack of proper discipline and supervision, and a lack of proper role models, and often gravely dysfunctional settings. As a result, our whole society grows weaker and more dysfunctional.

As the soil of the family grows ever thinner, we cannot expect to find the taller growths. And when the family is not strong, neither is the community, Church or nation. Birthrates fall and test scores fall, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood and divorce all rise.

Our children are in the balance, and we like David, seem to have little will or ability to change our ways. And though we see destruction, even death all around us, there seems little collective will to repent, live chastely and exemplify biblical marriage. In so doing we act not only sinfully, but also unjustly to our children, our community, our Church and nation.

And, as with ancient Israel, our future is tied to our decisions regarding our families. As our families go, so will the nation go. The Church will ultimately remain, but she is sorely weakened by our collective lack of resolve to restore our families.

This is lesson one.

Lesson twoDespite David’s committing of some pretty serious sins, to include premeditated murder; despite also his flaws and weakness, Scripture clearly attests God’s love for David. God’s himself says of that he is a man after My own heart (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). Yes, God had a heart for David, a special place in His heart.

And to be fair, David also had a great heart for God. It is true David was a sinner, and in several ways a very serious sinner. But he knew that, and was repentant (cf: 2 Sam 16:10-12; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:11ff, inter al). He was a great King, to be sure, but also a humble man. In his final words near the end of his life, he advised: He that ruleth over men, must be just, ruling in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:3). And though David sinned, he had a reverential fear for God rooted in love. He was a man after God’s own heart.

And herein lies the crux of this second lesson: God loves sinners, God uses sinners and flawed men and women. God can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way. Perhaps God should not have to, but he seems more than willing to use us, even in our brokenness.

Are there consequences to sin? Yes. But does God withdraw his love? Never. Even for those who finally refuse his Kingdom and it values, somehow his love reaches even into Hell. For how else could the souls there live without his sustaining love.

We should never doubt God’s love for us, no matter how deep our flaws or serious our sins. God will never forsake us. He may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, as he did with David, and seems to be doing with us now, but God never withdraws his love or fails to shepherd us rightly. Whatever our sins, we have but to seek his mercy, like David, and accept his love. We are men and women after God’s own heart.

We ought to learn the terrible lessons of the family of David and repent of any of the ways we in the modern setting too often repeat these sins. But in the end we must never forget God’s love for us, and acting out of the power of that Love, we must strive to bring healing to our often broken and dysfunctional families.

Painting above: David Repents from Wiki Commons

A Battle You Cannot Afford to Win – The Remarkable Story of Jacob’s Conversion

4x5 originalOne of the stranger affections of God in the Old Testament is the special love that God had for Jacob. His name, according to some means “grabber” or “usurper”. Even in the womb he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And though Esau made it out first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus they named him Jacob (“grabber”).

And though he was a “mama’s boy” he was also a schemer, a trickster and an outright liar. His mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.

His brother sought to kill him for this and he fled north to live with Laban, an uncle who was even a greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years he labored for him hoping to win his beloved Rachel. In wonderful payback, Laban tricked him into marrying her “less attractive” sister Leah by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back: surprise! Only seven years later would Jacob finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was out-schemed. He was a trickster, a shyster, and an out-right liar who succumbed to all his own devices by someone more devious than even he.

Yet, God seemed to have a heart for Jacob. At the end of the day, God loves sinners like you and me as well. And in Jacob, a hard case to say the least, God demonstrates that his love is not based on some human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5) and his love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life where God’s love reached down and worked a transformation.

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. And for reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had come to a point in his life where he realized that he had to try and reconcile with his brother Esau. He realized that this carried risk, and that his brother might kill him, having found him (he did not, they were later to be beautifully reconciled).

Perhaps this was the reason for his troubled sleep, and perhaps too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. But whatever the reason, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED man – The text says, So the [peace] offering [to Esau]  passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. (Gen 32:21-24)

Jacob is distressed. He has, somewhat willingly, and yet also for reasons of his own sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him. And thus he is distressed and sleepless.

And so it is for many of us that our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become bills that are overdue.

Having come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on Jacob to purify him and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about how God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do! Oh how we love distraction, noise and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who is God. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation, on a dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob
was left alone; It’s time to think, it’s time to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – verse 24b says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man?” The Book of Hosea answers and supplies other details of the event: He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him– the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name: (Hos 12:4-5)

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles, who strives with Jacob. God mixes it up with him, and shakes him up. And here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think God only exists to affirm and console us. He can, and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance to get us to think, and try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation the text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God cannot “prevail” over Jacob. But though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our will. And thus, in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night, and the lesson that Jacob must learn to lean and trust.

He is a hard case so God disables him. Having knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him with the necessity to literally limp and lean on a cane the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night wrestles with God beneath the stars and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with God, to wrestle with the issues in his life, with God. Jacob up to now has not well trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean, to trust, and realize he is a dependent man.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records: Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

If the “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would have to ask someone to “let him go,” and for a mere man, as Jacob is, to say to God “I will not let you go” as if man could “not let” God do anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, pulling from Jacob the required request. So the Man says, “Let me go!” But God wants Jacob, and us, to come to the place where we say, “I will not let you go!”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, “Don’t go, I need your blessing! Lord you’re my only hope. I need you, without you I am sunk”

God needs to get all of us to this place!

This critical moment has brought Jacob an insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends on God. And this leads us to the next stage:

III. DIFFERENT Man – The text records: And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:27-28)

Here is the critical moment. Jacob finally owns his name. Before he had lied to his Father Isaac who, when blind, asked him: “What is your name?” And Jacob lied saying: “I am Esau.”

But but after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth saying, “My name is Jacob.” And in saying there is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob…my name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster!”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging all that his name “literally” implies of him has been true.

But receiving this confession, God wipes this slate clean and gives him a new name: Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles, or strives with God.”

And in being renamed he becomes a new man. He is different now, he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with him, not against him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him to bless him, and cripple him to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again, he would limp for life and always remember how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Ps 51:17)

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “New Man” Jacob had become in the Book of Hebrews: By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshiped, leaning upon the top of his staff. (Heb 11:21) Yes, he had learned to lean. He limped the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win, the battle with God. Yes, that is a battle you cannot afford to win! Learn to lean, and delight to depend: the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?