This last week saw the death of John Doar, a member of the great Princeton class of 1944. He was, as you may know, an attorney from Wisconsin who became the chief lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil rights division. He rode with the Freedom Riders in 1961. He escorted James Meredith as Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962; he then lived in Mr. Meredith’s dorm room for several weeks to help ensure his safety. Doar succeeded in 1964 in convicting some of the killers of three voting rights workers in a case we remember as “Mississippi Burning”. Later, he was called on to lead the Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Former Princeton President Bill Bowen has called him a man “of principle”. He is being remembered everywhere as a person who did not seek the spotlight, attention, or even credit; he simply wanted to do the right thing, and to pursue justice and fairness, wherever he happened to find himself.
If the Book of Judges were to be written in our era, John Doar might very well be a character in it. The book tells the stories of how the Israelites disobey God, are then given over to a tyrant, the people call to God for help, and God works through a humble member of society to call the people to accountability and to righteousness. Then that Judge dies, and the people forget how to live justly. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book in a downward spiral until, at the book’s conclusion, the people have descended into total chaos. Our assigned passage tells us part of the story of Deborah, one of the judges – one of the very regular citizens through whom God works to help the people live rightly.
The Bible tells us that she is a “wife of Lappidoth”. The word “wife” can also be translated as “woman”(from a time when anyone old enough to be called a woman was already married; similarly, ancient Hebrew has one word for both “girl” and “virgin”, because if you weren’t yet in your mid-teens you were unmarried and, of course, a virgin). Lappidoth is a place, and its name means “torch” or “lightning”. A woman of Lappidoth is maybe – a fiery woman? A lightning bolt? An electric person? A person who lights up the darkness like a torch and shows people the way forward? I wonder if the humble Deborah, (she was a firecracker!) who sat under her tree and resolved disputes, instructed people in righteousness, and declared God’s will to those around her that they might deliver the people from oppressors.
Deborah the good Judge has the wisdom and faith to discern God’s vision for her people, but she does not act alone. She understands from God that the Israelite army can now be victorious over Sisera, and win the people’s freedom, so she calls on a person whom she knows can carry it out. She calls on Barak. By the time of this story’s conclusion, the foreign army will be delivered into the hand not of Deborah but of a contemporary woman, Jael. Deborah is a leader who enables talented people to also lead out of their gifts and specialties, and to work together for a goal. She has the wisdom not to grab the flag and insist on being noticed, but to organize a team, each of whose members will be critical to achieving justice.
Our reading from Judges has some excellent 3,000-year-old lessons for us on leadership, vision, righteousness, and the pursuit of justice. How different seems our reading from Matthew - it’s about what notto do! It has always been a difficult passage to interpret or even to like – the man with so much money and servants represents God…who returns from a journey and condemns a poor wretch who had played it safe with the money entrusted to him. I think that, like me, most people don’t identify with the two servants who invested their master’s money, made a good return, and were blessed by him for it. We identify with that last guy who acted cautiously and conservatively to safeguard what wasn’t his so as to not let his master down. That guy is me! What does this parable say, then, about the nature of God? Is damnation awaiting all of us who live carefully, proceed with caution, and try not to jeopardize what we have been given? Can God be that mean?
The owner/God is indeed damning of the third servant, but only after that man admits that he thinks the owner is harsh, cruel, and even a thief – taking what is not necessarily his. Hearing this, the owner becomesharsh to the man. I wonder if one of Christ’s lessons for those of us who hear the parable is that if we believe in, and expect judgment from, a harsh God, we will get it – that is the God we will meet. The God you expect is the God you will get, because you will have shaped your life to fit that expectation. If you expect a harsh God, you will live cautiously, you will not invest whatever gifts you have been given, you will live a small life of worry and fear that will keep you from living out a daring discipleship. Living in fear of a punitive God will compromise your faith life, keep you from inhabiting God’s love and offering it as a gift to others, and prevent the gospel of Christ from being known afresh to ever more people. If you expect a harsh God you will live accordingly, and eventually be judged by a God who sees you as wasting your opportunity to share what you have and to take risks so that grace may grow. The God you expect will be the God that you get!
Meanwhile, the other two servants meet an owner/God who delights in them. They were entrusted with treasure and they grew it into more. They lived not out of fear but out of their hope, their trust in their master, and their belief that his affirmation was well worth any risk. They got the God they expected as well – generous, blessing, proud, liberating.
There turns out to be a number of fine lessons from the Bible for us this morning, even from such an off-putting text as Matthew’s. One lesson is that we are to live not out of our fear but our hope. What we live out of is often what becomes realized – fear begets failure and hope begets growth, blessing, newness of life. There is always plenty to fear, and that has always been true. When we live out of our hope, we trust that God provides whatever safety net we need. We trust that God supports the risks that we take and undergirds our efforts to testify to the truth, wherever we find ourselves. When we believe this, we can take on the risks necessary to be disciples. We can do it. And God is our bottomless support throughout.
Another lesson from Christ’s parable is that we are never given more to deal with in our lives than what we can truly handle. That’s a favorite adage in the church these days, but our Matthean parable testifies to it boldly: the master gives to the servants only the load that they can really handle. Is your load great? Please know that God does not wish you any burden, but that God is also present to help you deal with whatever burdens life brings to you, and you can handle them.
A third lesson comes again from that unfortunate third servant: don’t bury whatever gifts you have, hoping only to preserve them. Let them shine. Risk exposing them to daylight, to critique, to scrutiny. Risk saying what you really know. Risk telling the truth. Risk living Christ’s love for all. Each of us has been given so much to share and the time to share it is now.
A fourth lesson is, from the Book of Judges, that we are always called to be available to be that person, the one God needs in our own day and time. It may not be for a national position as with Deborah the Judge or John Doar. It may just – “just” – be to tell the truth to others, to walk a small, local group out of a mess, to shape a family towards healing rather than fracture. It’s about being the wise Judge that God needs in any situation, living out of our hope and faith and courage, and never out of our fear. It’s about being the right person at the right time – one who listens for God’s word and then strives in the simplest of ways to implement it. Being a judge isn’t about being judgmental – Christ meant it when he said, “Judge not.” Being a Judge is about offering ourselves to God to be an instrument of God’s peace and righteousness. We don’t lead by castigating others but by pointing the way, beginning with our own example, towards justice and wholeness.
A fifth lesson for today is that when we lead well – when we rise to the opportunity to serve, like Deborah, as a judge and prophet, we never lead alone. God sends fellow servants alongside us to bring the talents that are given to them but not to us. We cross the finish line together, hands locked together, as did so many civil rights marchers in the days of John Doar. God never leaves us to our own devices, but surrounds us with gifted people that we may strengthen one another for the long haul.
So, let us dare to be Judges. God is always in need of humble people to serve as guides towards faithfulness, righteousness, and integrity.
Sara Koenig, www.workingpreacher.org, 11/16/14, Commentary on Judges 4:1-7
D. L. Bartlett and B. B. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, pp. 308-313