Promises, Promises

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Judges 11:1-11, 29-40, 2 Corinthians 11:21b-31, Mark 4:35-41


Poor Jephthah. Or more correctly, poor Jephthah’s nameless daughter. He vowed to the Lord:

“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

His daughter was the first one through the door.

Jephthah, though devastated, followed through on his vow. Is it a sort of poetic justice that his willingness to make a random sacrifice – possibly an innocent – sealed his daughter’s fate?

This might seem like a story where God is inexplicably cruel, but God never asked Jephthah for a sacrifice. He made his vow to curry favor from the Lord, but since the Lord didn’t respond neither Jephthah nor we can know whether it had any influence on the victory.

Have we ever made rash bargains with the Lord? Maybe something along the lines of: “If I get this promotion, I promise to give half my raise to the church,” or “If I get well, I’ll exercise every day.” The human race as a whole has a poor track record on following through with promises made in the heat of the moment. Unlike Jephthah, we should not resort to bargaining, but should be confident the spirit of the Lord is with us in all situations, regardless of our promises or eventual outcomes. We take vows to God seriously not to avoid God’s wrath, but because broken promises damage any relationship. Vows should never be taken lightly or impulsively – if at all. In Matthew, Jesus warns us about swearing oaths by heaven or by the earth.

Despite the outcome of Jephthath’s story, God isn’t some evil genie or monkey’s paw waiting to twist our own wishes against us. Nor does God’s grace hinge on the appropriate grand gesture or sacrifice. Rather, like a good parent, God allows the consequences of our actions to instruct us. If we are to be good children, we will mind our lessons, and be careful not to make promises we can’t keep.

Comfort: God doesn’t require our promises, but our faith.

Challenge: Reflect on a promise you have broken. How did it make you feel?

Prayer: God of hope, tend my confidence in you so it will grow. Amen.

Discussion: Some commentaries make a strong case that this story is more correctly interpreted as Jephthah consecrating his daughter as a lifelong virgin to the Lord. Does this change your feelings about the story?

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