By Sarah Cornwell
A Reading from Judith 8:9-17, 9:1, 7-10
9 When Judith heard the harsh words spoken by the people against the ruler, because they were faint for lack of water, and when she heard all that Uzziah said to them, and how he promised them under oath to surrender the town to the Assyrians after five days, 10 she sent her maid, who was in charge of all she possessed, to summon Uzziah and Chabris and Charmis, the elders of her town. 11 They came to her, and she said to them:
“Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? 13 You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test, but you will never learn anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? No, my brothers, do not anger the Lord our God. 15 For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases, or even to destroy us in the presence of our enemies. 16 Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like a human being, to be threatened, or like a mere mortal, to be won over by pleading. 17 Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice if it pleases him.”
1 Then Judith prostrated herself, put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing. At the very time when the evening incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice, and said:
7 “Here now are the Assyrians, a greatly increased force, priding themselves on their horses and riders, boasting in the strength of their foot-soldiers, and trusting in shield and spear, in bow and sling. They do not know that you are the Lord who crushes wars; the Lord is your name. 8 Break their strength by your might, and bring down their power in your anger; for they intend to defile your sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where your glorious name resides, and to break off the horns of your altar with the sword. 9 Look at their pride, and send your wrath upon their heads. Give to me, a widow, the strong hand to do what I plan. 10 By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.”
We have a tendency to treat God like a gig worker. We want him to show up at a certain time, do the job we ask him to do, and then go away until we need him for another job. This is King Uzziah’s approach. He gives God five days to defeat the Assyrian army, at which point he promises his people that he’ll surrender the city. Judith then reminds the king: God does not work for you.
Judith shows us that the very notion of a contract with God is absurd. Instead of striking a deal for services rendered, Judith formulates a plan, prostrates herself to the Almighty, and asks that he bring it to fruition. God makes no promises about whether or not the plan will work, but she goes ahead and does it anyway.
As we will see later, God does deliver the Assyrian general (or at least his head) into the hands of Judith. But see also today’s gospel reading in which John the Baptist is arrested, ultimately to be beheaded by Herod for preaching God’s truth about marriage. Sometimes when we serve God, the enemy’s head is given over to us; at other times, our own head is given to the enemy on a silver platter.
God isn’t a worker, but he isn’t an employer either. Neither bribes nor strikes affect him. He has already given everything for us in Christ, so he demands our all, and we can extract no earthly promises from him on pain of our own disobedience. We are instead called to radically devote ourselves to his Great Commission and accept the consequences of our plans.
We venerate saintly conquerors and martyrs alike in the Church, because all of history bends toward the ultimate consummation, when God’s promise of deliverance will be finally fulfilled. Until then, do as Judith did: pray, fast, and then get to work.
Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have seven children and they live in Chicago.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Mpwapwa – The Anglican Church of Tanzania
Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee