In the chapter right
before today’s passage from Hebrews, the author lists many figures from the Old
Testament, our ancient ancestors in faith: Abraham, Moses, and David, of course,
but also Rahab, the harlot who aided the Israelites; Samson, who died, bald and
blind, with the Philistines; and, Jephthah, whose sad story we hear later this
week. None of them perfect, yet they still persevered in faith despite not
seeing fulfilled any of what was promised. Amazing individuals for sure, but
they seem too distant, too removed for me to really relate.
I think it’s a good idea
for each of us to have our own cloud of witnesses, people who have gone before
us--or those who are still with us--that we look to for support to rid ourselves
of the burdens and sins of the past. Yes, we keep our eyes on Jesus and we learn
through his example what perfect faith looks like, but we see it is not pretty
or easy, so we also recognize the faith of others to strengthen our own.
We hear in Luke’s Gospel
Jesus’ warning to the disciples about division and struggle in his name, even
among close relatives and friends. The foreign gods that tempted the ancient
Israelites are nothing compared to the challenges family division can cause,
especially if you are alone in trying to maintain the faith.
Let’s say a prayer of
gratitude today to all those who make up our own unique cloud of witnesses. Ask
them for their continued support and prayers. And let us also pray for those
family members and friends who are struggling, without the benefit of knowing
their own cloud of witnesses. Let us commit to stand by them—to be an
unrecognized witness—not crying aloud, not raising our voices, not breaking
those who are bruised (Is 42: 2-3) … standing by them as Jesus stands by
them: “Though I am
afflicted and poor, yet the LORD thinks of me.”
Living the Word….
Have you ever thought
about the people that make up your cloud of witnesses? Yes, it is wise to call
upon Mary and Joseph, of course, and maybe a special saint or two, but what
about a parent or grandparent or other relative—one who seemed to keep the faith
in the face of hardship. Perhaps a neighbor or teacher who encouraged you to
keep trying; friends who can relate to your life’s story and struggles. For
those who serve the poor, it is often those they serve that provide a powerful
witness of faith. Make a list of these people and keep it on your phone or post
it somewhere to remind you of their presence in your lives. Like Jesus, they are
with you always to comfort, to strengthen, to pray.
The children of Israel
offended the LORD…Abandoning the LORD, the God of their fathers, they followed
other gods of the various nations around them, and by their worship of these
gods provoked the LORD.
Maybe the Israelites are
just trying to fit in. It’s hard to be the only nation around that worships a
totally unseen God. Just like it’s hard to be the only family on the team that
chooses church over sports on the Sabbath…the only kid who stands up for a
classmate being bullied…the only person in the office who strives to follow
God’s commands. What are the other “gods” you encounter when you are trying to
said, “If the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? “The LORD said,
“Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian…. “I
shall be with you,” the LORD said to him.
Israel is in a state of
extreme poverty having been overrun by enemies. The Lord comes to Gideon who
questions God as to why this has happened. God doesn’t answer him, but gives
him the task of saving Israel. When hardships befall us, our first question is
often, “Why?” God doesn’t usually answer, at least not directly. We are wise to
listen to God’s directive and assurance to Gideon: go…move forward…with
whatever strength you have… “I shall be with you.” If you are struggling, think
about God saying these words to you.
"Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves…”
This parable from the
Book of Judges is lengthy and confusing if you don’t have the context. The
Israelites, again perhaps trying to fit it, demand a king even though the wisdom
figures have advised against it. These early prophets are represented by the
olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine in the parable who refuse the role of
king. So what are they left with? The buckthorn—in this case, Abimelech, whose
mother is a Canaanite slave; who has just committed fratricide, killing 70 of
his brothers, and has only his own desire for power in mind. To quote scholar
Robert Alter, “only a nasty and unproductive type (the buckthorn) would
aspire to the power of a king.” Hmmh. The lesson for the Israelites, and for
us, is to realize that human leaders can and sometimes do steer us away from our
allegiance to God. Yes, there are leaders like King David, “a man after God’s
own heart” (1 Sm 13), but we are advised “not to put our trust in
princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” (Ps 146) In these days of political
turmoil and strife, let’s make sure our faith and trust remains in our Servant
Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,
whoever comes out of the doors of my house when I return in triumph I shall
offer up as a burnt offering.”
This is a disturbing
story. Jephthah makes a rash vow to God in exchange for victory in battle, then
has to violate Mosaic Law by sacrificing his only child to fulfill his promise.
God didn’t demand the vow, yet the story ends with the girl’s demise. Is there
anything we can learn from this sad tale? Most of us, at some point, bargain
with God. Maybe it’s for health, or perhaps for our own success or glory. But
it’s wise to pray only for the acceptance of God’s will and gratitude for what
is given. God does not demand much more than that.
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul,
and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law
and the prophets depend on these two commandments."(Mt
I wonder if we are not
unlike the Pharisees who come and test Jesus with all our doctrines and rules
and rituals. We make things so complex because we desire control: ‘the surer I
can be about this sin and that grace, the more likely I will get to where I want
to go.’ Jesus says three things plainly: Love God with your whole being, love
your neighbor, and love yourself. And when you think about it, we really can’t
fulfill the first commandment unless we are able to fulfill the second. It is
what God calls us to do, what God wills for us: peace and happiness and joy for
ourselves and for each other. The whole law and all the wisdom that has been
written comes down to that. We have only to carry it out.
Jesus saw Nathanael and said
of him, "Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him."
always thought Jesus was complimenting Nathanael with these words until it
dawned on me that Israel—Jacob—was one of the most duplicitous characters in the
whole of Hebrew scripture! Was Jesus subtly jabbing Nathanael for his
uncharitable comment about Nazareth? I like to think so and that they all had a
good laugh! The name Israel means one who struggles with God. So perhaps Jesus
is saying that it is in our willingness to admit our struggles, our biases, our
assumptions about who or what God is (or where God is from!) that allows us to
be open to God revealing even greater things! Don’t be afraid to talk to God
about your struggles.
Ireland has a passion for working with parents and anyone who struggles to
maintain a sense of God’s love and peace amid the day-to-day challenges of life.
She has a master’s degree in Spiritual and Pastoral Care from the Pastoral
Counseling department at Loyola, Maryland, with a focus on developmental
psychology and spiritual guidance. Rooted in Ignatian spirituality, she is
a writer, retreat and workshop leader, and presenter on topics such as pastoral
parenting, “letting go,” and finding the spiritual in the midst of everyday
life. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland with her husband, Mark and children,
David and Maggie.
We hope you
enjoy "Come and See!"
and we welcome your input. Please contact Elaine Ireland at
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