20th August. Thursday, Week 20
Feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (See below)
1st Reading: Judges 11:29-39
After Jephthah’s rash vow, he sacrifices his only daughter
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
At the royal wedding, the invited guests decline to attend
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 are 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.
Enraged, the king 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.”
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot and doctor of the Church.
Bernard (1090-1153) from Burgundy in France, was a monk and the primary initiator of the reforming Cistercian order. His abbey at Clairvaux was a template for monastic reform in the 12th century, and through his influence, Malachy of Armagh introduced the Cistercians to Ireland. A great preacher and devoted to the Virgin Mary, Bernard promoted the unity of Christendom and was advisor to both popes and crusaders. At the Council of Troyes (1129) he helped to formulate the rule of the Knights Templar, who became the ideal of Christian nobility.
Jephthah’s rash conscience
It is futile to defend Jephthah’s rash and violent action, even when its background is explained in the text. This rather obscene story is a classic instance of violence towards women. Caught in a military crisis, he vows, if successful, to offer in sacrifice whoever first comes out of his 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 this vow; for the first to meet him was his only child, his daughter, who came out dancing for joy at her father’s success. 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 futile to say that God could makes exceptions to his own law against child-sacrifice. The God of the Bible, a God of compassion and fidelity, cannot also be one of blind and ruthless cruelty.
We are left with the serious warning — not everything done in God’s name, even in the Bible, is positive guidance for us. Fortunately we have the passage in Gen 22 to correct the horrible error of Jephthah. The final verse in Judges is another usefulwarning, “In those days there was no king in Israel; they all did what they thought best.” The entire Book of Judges prepares us for the Davidic royalty, a radical change from the earlier Mosaic traditions. This episode compels us to question our own motives and promises. Do we act impulsively to the harm of others? Do we try to justify everything we do? Do we use — or abuse — our authority as if everything we do is automatically correct? Are we open to correction by common sense and candid observations from others?
And what about vast debts incurred within the European banking system, during a phase of reckless lending and borrowing? Are these so set in stone that nothing but endless austerity will be allowed to prevail, doing most harm to the weakest in society?
While Jephthah acted rashly based on a false conscience, with dire results, the gospel states the need to act firmly on a good conscience, properly guided not just by tradition but 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 for Jews alone. 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.