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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living Dangerously: The Song of Deborah

Gustave Dore's interpretation of the prophetess Deborah.
There's a term for the message of this morning's scriptural lessons: Risk-aversion.

Apparently, Jesus is not a fan. In fact, I think it's an understatement to say that he doesn't like it. Indeed, I think Jesus has an aversion to risk-aversion.

In the story of the Parable of the Talents, the easy interpretation is the need for us to put our natural gifts to work for God. You know: If you have a "talent" to play the piano (or teaching or caretaking or making money), use it to the glory of God.

That's an okay understanding - indeed, I've preached on it before - but I've come to know that it's a pretty shallow interpretation. A 'talent' - in the Hebrew world - was a measure of silver, worth about a thousand dollars.

Imagine! One talent = about a thousand dollars. That's a lot of money, even today!

In the story, a man was going on a journey and entrusted his property to his servants, ""to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability."

When the man returned from his journey, he rewarded the servant who had taken risks with his investment and scolded the one who didn't, punishing him and casting him "into the outer darkness".

If I could rename this parable, it would be "The Year of Living Dangerously".

Which brings us to Deborah, of whom we hear in the first lesson (Judges 4:1-7)

Most of the great women in the Bible either are married to a great man or related to one. Sarah is primarily known as Abraham's wife, and Miriam as Moses' sister. Even Esther, who saves the Jewish people from Haman's attempted genocide, is guided by her adviser and cousin, Mordechai.

A rare exception to this tradition is the prophetess and judge Deborah, perhaps the Bible's greatest woman figure.

Deborah stands exclusively on her own merits. The only thing we know about her personal life is the name of her husband, Lapidot. "She led Israel at that time," is how the Bible records it. "She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah ... and the Israelites would come to her for judgment" (4:4).

During Deborah's time, a century or so after the Israelite entry into Canaan, the valley in which she and her tribe lived was controlled by King Jabin of Hazor. Deborah summoned the warrior Barak and instructed him in God's name to take ten thousand troops and confront Jabin's general, Sisera, and his army's nine hundred iron chariots, on Mount Tabor.

Barak's response to Deborah shows the high esteem in which this ancient prophetess was held: "If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go."

"Very well, I will go with you," Deborah consents, but she can't resist gibing at Barak about the sexism of their society. "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman" (4:8-9).

Don't you just LOVE it? Smart. Wise. And, Feisty.

My kinda gal.

The battle takes place during the rainy season, and Sisera's chariots quickly bog down in the mud. The Israelites overwhelm Hazor's army, and inflict heavy casualties. Sisera, fleeing on foot, escapes to the Kenite camp, where Jael, the clan leader's wife, invites him to stay. He falls asleep in her tent, whereupon Jael lifts a mallet and drives a tent peg through his head.

Clearly, neither Deborah nor Jael were women you wanted to mess with.

The famed "Song of Deborah," in chapter 5, exults in the breaking of the Canaanite stranglehold over much of the country: "So may all Your enemies perish, O Lord," is Deborah's parting shot.

I'm still thinking about Deborah's march into battle with Barak. Yes, he held her in high esteem, but I suspect Barak was saying to Deborah, "Okay, I'm willing to risk my life on the word of a woman, but if I'm going to go down in battle, so are you."

Deborah did not have an aversion to risk. Indeed, in her day, it was risk enough to claim authority as a woman. Everything after that was just gravy.

Besides, she knew they had the enemy outnumbered: 100,000 of Barak's soldiers to Sisera's 900 chariots - and it was the rainy season.

Some people need an iron-clad guarantee - especially on the word of a woman.

It seems even Paul (in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) has something to say about risking security for God as he speaks about the return of Jesus coming "like a thief in the night".

"When they say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!"

Any woman who has ever experienced labor and birth will testify to Paul's words.

Becoming who you are and then being and doing what you are called to do is somewhat akin to being born all over again. And, again. And, again.

It's not exactly a pain-free process. Indeed, it's hard work.

C.S. Lewis puts it vividly: "It may be a hard thing for an egg to become a bird; it is a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while it is still an egg. We are like eggs, today, and we either must be hatched, or go bad!"

Being "hatched" takes great courage, but it is the only way to become who we are and do what it is we were meant to do. And that courage is the foundation for the courage required to take other risks to continue to be true to ourselves and what we are called to do.

We spend so much of our lives hiding our true selves, burying our worth and value from ourselves and squandering our gifts on being "reasonable" and "safe".

I'm still chuckling at today's story from StoryPeople:
"I don't have a whole lot of excuses for what's gone wrong with my life, she said. But the ones I do have are really good."
There is no safety and security in this life. They are but illusions we create to ease the uneasiness and disturbance that often comes to our souls when, in fact, that disturbance is often God's call to us to become who we were meant to be and do what we were created to do in this life, with this one gift of this one life we've been given.

Hillary Clinton was soundly criticized for saying, once, rather wistfully during her husband's campaign for President, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life."

Well, she certainly did that and more, taking all the heat for her husband by taking on the first attempts at Health Care Reform.

She was the President's Deborah and he was her Barak.

And now, she is, perhaps, the best Secretary of State we've had in recent history. It's my personal opinion that she would have made one helluva President, but that's another story for another time.

It's important to remember that success is often born of many failures. If we don't take the risk of failure, we may never achieve our goal. Or, fulfill our lives.

St. Augustine, whose birthday it is today, once said,
"Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."
Deborah knew that. So did Jesus, which may be one reason he told such a harsh parable about "The Year of Living Dangerously".

There are parts of each of us in every character of that parable - elements of our psyche that understands the ones who took great risks as well as the one who was reasonable and played it safe.

There's also a Barak in each of us - willing to take a risk but wanting a companion along the way - as well as a Deborah - willing to risk our very lives on what it is we believe to be true.

Either way, if we are to know hope - if we are to hatch out of our shells and learn to fly - then we must harness both our anger and our courage.

I suspect that is the greatest challenge - and the greatest risk - of all. Everything after that is gravy.

In the end, however, we, like Deborah, may have our own unique song to sing.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Deborah. Gotta love her. You go, Deborah!

I did a different calculation on the Talents today (I supply preached for the Presbyterians today.) My study Bible said a talent was worth roughly "15 years wages for a day laborer." I took a modern day laborer's salary--$15/hour x 8 hours x 5 days x 50 weeks (I gave him two weeks vacation) x 15 years. That comes out to Mr. One Talent getting $450,00; Mr. Two Talents, $900,000, and Mr. Five Talents a cool $2.5 mil. Talked about how we hear the story and think "five, two, one," and see the "one" as scarcity, but in reality it was abundance. "Dude! You buried $450,000 in the BACKYARD?????"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, leave it to the pathologist to go for accuracy. Still, the comparison to ancient and modern is pretty startling.

Kay & Sarah said...

A very timely post for me.