Thursday, 26 March 2015

Lent day 32

Today's disclosure that the tragic Airbus crash in the French Alps Maritimes causing the death of 150 people was the result of a deliberate act by one of pilots makes it a mass murder accompanied by the suicide of the perpetrator. For me this brought to mind the final act of Samson in the Book of Judges.

"And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life." (Judges 16:28-30)
Samson was a man of violence, an appalling character, nothing virtuous about him, yet regarded as an Israelite hero, championing his people's right to exist in the Promised Land, among the population of tribes who shared their name with the land, Philistia, that may have been much more sophisticated than these rough and ready nomads, looking to settle down, in the same region. 

St Paul quotes the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:35 in warning the faithful against vengeance and retaliation, it's a precept of Mosaic teaching ignored countless times, or else its justification has been argued from circumstances. Paul is convinced that Christ's way of pardon and reconciliation is the right path for his disciples to follow, to break the deadly cycle of evil, and suffering so destructive in human relationships. We have to learn not to react to events but let them take their course in God's mysterious providence. 

"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." (Rom 10:9)

God's wrath is not as simple as an expression of anger or outrage with devastating consequences, but rather a way of thinking about the consequences of evil having their own ultimately deadly cycle of causes with unavoidable effects. Paul summarises thus in Romans 6:23 "The wages of sin is death.

Samson's self inflicted death is not the only one in scripture. Abimelech in Judges 9:54, also Saul and his armour bearer in 1 Sam 31:3-6  are wounded in battle and call upon their servants to shorten their suffering and disgraceful weakness by killing them. Saul's armour bearer then kills himself. This is no different from the behaviour of the warrior classes in many other ancient cultures, men wanting to be spared shame by having their mortal weakness exposed and their heroic reputation besmirched. It is ultimately no more than an expression of male vanity sustained by the prevailing culture.

Zimri became king of Israel in a murderous palace coup, (1 Kings 16:10) but the army rejected his bid for power, electing Omri as their sovereign, so Zimri sets the royal palace on fire and dies in the blaze. In 2 Sam 17:23, Ahithopel finds himself disgraced and rejected as Absalom's advisor, so goes home, puts his affairs in order and then hangs himself, and this too is the course of action taken by Judas Iscariot, overcome with remorse when he realises that his cunning plan to hand Jesus over to the Jewish authorities and force a convincing display of power in the confrontation that follows, goes disastrously wrong. He attempts to return the bribe he took for information leading to Jesus' arrest, and his action is rejected with contempt.

"Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself." (Matt 27:3-5) 

Human pride generate illusions of knowledge and power, and a sense of superiority over others that leads to the worship of god made in our own flawed image. Those in scripture who killed themselves were people of self-belief, power and influence generated by their own ambition. When truth burst the bubble of illusion, they found themselves weakened and ashamed, then acted as judge and jury on themselves, taking their own lives, rather than submitting to God's judgment, in which the hope of mercy always remains. 

People also kill themselves, or let themselves fade and die un-necessarily because they are sick and no longer want to care for themselves. The despair and pain of living longer becomes unbearable. The Psalms are full of the pleas of those who are weak, vulnerable, oppressed, outcast, pleas which conclude by expressing trust in God's ability to vindicate those who suffer. These are the prayers of survivors. 

Those who do not survive, unable to express trust in what is beyond themselves, have no voice. Effectively they give up facing themselves and God, and let themselves go to nothing. It's not what God intends, but that's how it is for many. Opinion in Judaism was divided about life after death, if not the value and meaning of life itself.

"It is not the dead who praise the Lord, they go down to the place of silence. But as for us, we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forever more." (Psalm 115:17-18)

The 'us' here is those who choose life, even in the face of death. Jesus tackled the issue in his unique way. 

"But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him."  (Luke 20:37-8)

Does this extend to those who reject life and reject God? Or does God always leave a way open for them to return? There is so much that we have yet to learn.

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