Sunday, 14 February 2016

Thorns (1)

I've been meaning to write a series of Lenten reflections on thorns for some years now. I think the time has come.  Even my words of wisdom from St Philip Neri on the sidebar are thorn related, I had intended to pick something far more up-beat from his Maxims for 2016, but that saying of his stuck out and stuck to me and won't let go.

I will start with Jothan's parable in the Book of Judges.

The back story is that Israel had had Gideon as Judge.  He was a humble man and fearless in battle. Israel was toying with the idea of having a king and said to him "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian." Gideon replied to them, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you." (Judges 8:22) That Gideon then goes and messes up by making and object for idolatry, is typical of the tales in the book of Judges and one of the reasons why I love the book so much.  Gideon may not have been king in name, but he lived with the trappings of kingship. After Gideon's death, the son of Gideon by a concubine then stirs up his mother's people in Shechem against his 70 children by his various wives. All but one are ritually slaughtered (upon one stone), the youngest Jothan escapes and his parable is the tale he tells atop Mount Gerizim addressed to the people of Shechem.

I can't imagine he gathered the townsfolk together to tell them this parable.  Rather, I see him standing in some natural auditorium in the hillside speaking to the wind. I see him hoping his voice will carry to Shechem, and perhaps carry down the centuries; it is a prophetic tale about the nature of kingship.  He leaves his words to future generations and disappears into obscurity, like any good prophet. It is his message to us all that interests me, rather than his immediate curse-like prophecy regarding the destruction of Shechem at the hands of Abimelech.

Listen to me you men of Shechem, that God may listen to you.
Ahh, Shechem with its chequered history and chequered future; where Abraham built his altar in recognition of God's covenant, where the son's of Israel, Simeon and Levi massacred the inhabitants in revenge for the rape of their sister, where in a few short years after Jothan's prophecy, the self-proclaimed king, Abimelech massacres its inhabitants, where for a short while after the death of Solomon , the kings of Israel held their investitures  and finally where Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. Yes, Shechem has a lot to say to us about Kingship.  Jothan is speaking down the ages, he is the rightful heir of Gideon and a rightful king of Israel (if he so desired).

The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us.' But the olive tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my fatness, by which the gods and men are honoured, and go to sway over the trees?'
The oil from the olive is the oil that ran down Aaron's beard to the hem of his garment, it is the oil of anointing, the oil of the priesthood. It has humbler uses too as a food staple. The tree has utility to men and gods.  I think Jothan is telling us that Kingship is not about utility.

And the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come you and reign over us.' But the fig tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go sway over the trees?'
The trees are still looking for a king amongst those trees that are useful. And the fig tree, like the olive tree seems to have a distorted view of kingship.  It sees kingship as lording it over the other trees.  The fig, like the olive, knows its place and knows it isn't destined for kingship.

And the trees said to the vine, 'Come you and reign over us.' But the vine said to them, 'Shall I leave my wine which cheers gods and men, and go sway over the other trees?.
As with any good parable, there needs to be triple failure to drill home the point.  Trees of utility can not be kings, kingship is not a "useful" thing. BUT neither is kingship about "swaying over the other trees" in superiority.

Then the trees said to the bramble, 'Come you, and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'
Is it not strange that the trees never asked the mighty cedar to be their king?  Too scared perhaps.  So they approach the bramble who is humble and honest. He understands the nature of kingship. Firstly, he knows kingship is about protection and he knows he can make an impenetrable fortress with his thorns.  But you will have to get very low yourself to make use of it.  You will have to be humble and sincere or he can offer you no protection. And in the heat of the summer is is possible for tinder dry bramble to cause the most awesome of fires that will consume all the other trees, including the mighty cedar. So secondly and not actually paradoxically, the bramble knows that having a king has consequences; a king can also destroy as well as save.

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.....And The King was mocked as a crown of brambles was placed on His Sacred Head.  His Kingship was not taken in good faith, and we've been mocking it ever since.  

But the bramble was raised up with the King, to sit upon His Head as He reigns from Calvary. A sign of His Glory and our protection.

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