One clue may be that today is the feast of St. Bernard, doctor of the Church, abbot of Clairvaux, theologian and reformer of the Cistercian monastic life (and, by the way, St. Bernard dogs were named after someone else!) As an abbot, Bernard led his monks to follow the Rule of St. Benedict very strictly, in an austere way of life which nevertheless attracted large numbers to join them in his own time. Through the centuries his tradition has continued to inspire many to sacrifice worldly comforts in order to seek God – including the Cistercians called Trappists, and among them the well-known 20th century author Thomas Merton.
Another clue may be in the Psalm’s refrain “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will”. Right after we hear Jephthah’s story, the Psalm sings, “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not…Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not.” Instead, “To do your will, O my God, is my delight.”
So maybe I should reflect on how I tend to take God’s love for granted. Don’t we tend to think that nothing more can be asked of us beyond what we’re already doing quite comfortably? We have smug and ready excuses for not feeding the hungry, tending the sick, etc – in other words, for not truly living the Christian faith: “I do enough already,” or “I can’t be expected to be more than I am.”
Today’s readings haul us back – not to the ancient practice of human sacrifice or to an obsessive concern with proper attire, but to faith, fidelity and commitment. Jephthah is no ordinary man but a mighty warrior, a figure to represent power and success. The daughter is no ordinary child bouncing out the front door to greet Daddy, but rather a princess giving a ceremonial welcome, signifying, again, power and success. Together, father and daughter represent something greater still -- about not taking the Lord for granted, and about sacrifice beyond human reason, for love. To accept her role in fulfilling her father’s vow, the daughter must have loved God, and her father, very much! I see parallels in Jephthah’s story with the “Binding of Isaac” by Abraham and even with the sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross.
Also, let us consider how the man “not dressed in a wedding garment” in the Gospel parable reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is not to be taken for granted. When the king notices him, the lazy guest “was reduced to silence.” So it’s not like he didn’t have or couldn’t get the proper clothing. (The other last-minute invitees managed to dress appropriately.) This guest complacently preferred the comfort of his old jeans and t-shirt (or the first-century equivalent) instead of sacrificing a bit of convenience to do the right thing for his particular situation.
So today, may this parable shake me out of my slothful self-satisfaction! Let me not take God for granted! Let me love God enough to sacrifice any convenience and comfort in order to say honestly, “To do your will, O my God, is my delight.” Or, to quote a prayer that impressed me fifty years ago and haunts me still, “Dear God, keep me from offering sacrifices that cost me nothing.”
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