Monday of the fourth week of ordinary time

Hebrews 11:32-40; Psalm 30:20-24 (LXX); Mark 5:1-20

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, or of David, Samuel and the prophets – these were men who through faith conquered kingdoms, did what is right and earned the promises.  (Heb 11.32)

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
  all you who wait for the Lord!       (Ps 30.24)

So he gave them leave. and the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank in to the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mk 5.13)

.  .  .

Jephthah? My first thought at reading the first verse of the passage from Hebrews was utter disbelief. How does Jephthah make it to the litany of the faithful in Hebrews 11? The story told about him and his family in Judges 11 does record his victory in battle, but one wonders whether even Jephthah himself would have considered the victory worth what it cost him: his daughter, his only child. His tale is tragic, and his loss as mysterious as Job’s. There is no doubt, reading Judges 11, that God allowed Jephthah to make the vow that  won the battle and took his daughter from him. Why?

Mark’s gospel offers no answers, only more–and different–questions. The demoniac is healed, but someone lost a herd of pigs in the bargain. One might argue that the life of the man is worth more, but I would still ask whether the demoniac could not have been healed without the loss of the pigs? (I know, the pigs weren’t of particular concerns to the Israelites. But still.) Likewise, could not Jephthah’s battle have been won without that vow? Or could the Lord not have arranged for a goat to be first to meet Jephthah on his return? Yet there he is, listed among some of the most remarkably faithful characters in the history of Israel: clearly we are not meant to forget his story, or to push him aside in our recollection of God’s faithfulness to Israel, but to remember him for his faith.

It doesn’t make sense. But then, there’s quite a bit in the history of Israel and the Church, and in my own history, that just doesn’t make sense. But would a reason really make it easier? Would Jephthah’s loss be less tragic if there were a reason for his daughter’s death?

And so, in the middle of it all, there’s a psalm. It is a psalm that recounts the faithfulness of God and celebrates the steadfast love of the Lord. Somehow, in the midst of the suffering, even the most apparently senseless suffering, God’s justice and mercy prevail. So the only response to the tragedies that shatter us, and fly in the face of the goodness of God, is to hear the psalmist’s encouragement:

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
  all you who wait for the Lord.

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