18 Aug, Thursday of Week 20
Judg 11:29ff. Jephthah makes a rash vow and feels obliged to sacrifice his only child, an unmarried daughter.
Matt 22:1ff. Parable of the royal wedding, where people from the byroads take the place of the original guests, a story adapted to the final judgment.
The Scandal of Jephtah
Difficulties abound as we reflect on Jephthah the judge and the parable of the royal wedding. In the one story the Bible seems to sanction human sacrifice, or at least to support rash promises; and in the other the original parable of Jesus seems to have gone through several revisions, seen by comparing Matthew’s parable with Luke 14:16-24 – and the various editorial levels overlap in a confused way. Yesterday we saw how, like rain from above, God’s word soaks the earth and returns in riddle and parable; here is a good example of how earthly and imperfect even God’s word can become in human hands.
It is futile to defend Jephthah’s action, even if we might understand his initial rash impulsiveness. Caught in a military crisis, he vows, if successful, to offer in sacrifice whatever living thing first comes out of the doors of the house to meet him. “When I return in triumph… I shall offer it up as a holocaust.” A holocaust must always be totally consumed on the altar. We are shocked by his carrying out this vow; for the first to meet him was his daughter, who came out, celebrating and dancing. Pathetically the text adds that she was his only child. Jephthah granted her request for two months to mourn her virginity, her inability now to marry and have children. Then she returned to her father, who carried out his terrible vow. But Gen 22, where at the last second Abraham is prevented from sacrificing his firstborn son, Isaac, shows that Yahweh never approved, but in fact condemned child sacrifice. It is no explanation to say that God could makes exceptions to this law against child sacrifice. The God of the Bible, a God of compassion and fidelity, cannot act with such blind and ruthless command over life and death.
We are left then with the serious warning – not everything that is done in God’s name, even in the Bible, can be accepted and followed as right. Fortunately we have the passage in Gen 22 to correct the horrible error of Jephthah. The final verse in Judges gives another warning to read cautiously: In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what they thought best. The entire Book of Judges is preparing for the inauguration of the Davidic royalty, a radical change from the earlier Mosaic traditions yet absolutely necessary. This episode compels us to question and evaluate our own motives and promises. Have we acted impulsively to the harm of others? Do we try to justify everything we do, saying that we do all things in God’s name? Do we use – or abuse – our legitimate authority to consider everything that we do as godly and automatically correct? Can we be corrected by common sense and candid observations from others?
Ezekiel is a careful and cautious adviser in this matter. Where Jeremiah spoke warmly of our receiving a new heart (Jer 31:31-34), Ezekiel adapts his charter of freedom to the other expectations of Israel, more conscious than Jeremiah of liturgical rules and priestly authority. He speaks of sprinkling with holy water and cleansing from impurities. The priest must vouch that the worshipper will not contaminate the other members of the community. Yet Ezekiel is by no means a legalist. Before the law can be truly observed God must take away the stony heart and give a natural heart (in Hebrew, a heart of flesh, open and adaptable, sensitive to life). Ezekiel also speaks of a new spirit, God’s very own, that is placed within the true Israelite. Only under these conditions shall they be God’s people in truth. He strikes a happy balance between freedom and law, religion and common sense, individual rights and community expectations. Compared with the incident in Judges, Ezekiel shows the need of a balanced religious outlook to control or enrich our lives.
While Jephthah acted imprudently – with very painful results – based on a false conscience, the gospel places before us the need to act firmly on a good conscience, properly guided not only by tradition but also by humble obedience to God. Jesus, in the punch-line of the parable, shows that gentiles from the byroads will enter the wedding feast, once reserved to the Jews. Then in a later revision of the parable, the phrase “bad as well as good” was added to describe the people from the byroads, thus preparing for the final judgment. Eventually God straightens out everything and manifests his providential care. Till then we must wait and believe, conscious of his abundant goodness towards each of us, called in from the byroads.
First Reading: Judges 11:29-39
Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father,who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that
Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”