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“GETTING A LIFE”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, February 6, 2011
Gideon – that “mighty man of valor” – is a coward and a crybaby. At least that’s what it seems. We first encounter him trying to thresh wheat in – of all places – a winepress! But let’s not dignify it too much – perhaps it is more like cowering than threshing. What is he so afraid of?
In a word? Midianites. You see, it’s an unsettled time in the land of Canaan. The Israelite invasion is incomplete. Although some parts of the land are secure, most are not. There are Philistines to the southwest, maintaining a military hold over the sea plains. And there are Phoenecians to the northwest and Syrians to the northeast. And, although the native Canaanites are occasionally a nuisance, the main threat at the time of Gideon is from the southeast – the dreaded Midianites.
These nomad warriors, emerging from northern Arabia, have invaded the central part of Canaan and are making devastating raids on the agrarian economy of Israel. Their attacks normally come during the harvest season. They sweep down on the farms, steal the crops, set fire to the farms, and disappear.
With ample warning, the terrified Israelites are able to run for cover in the many caves in the mountains until their attackers have left. But usually the element of surprise is complete, for the Midianites are the first to use camels as a type of long-range cavalry.
And so we find Gideon, the young Israelite, threshing grain in a winepress. The image is ridiculous. Usually, a village’s threshing floor is located in an open, circular area, about 100 feet in diameter. Bundles of grain are spread out in this large circle and animals – usually oxen – are driven around until the grain is loosened and the stalks chopped up. Then harvesters toss the trampled mess into the air, taking advantage of the wind, which blows the chaff away, but doesn’t affect the heavier seeds.
A winepress, on the other hand, consists of three holes, each lined with rocks, dug into the side of a hill. The largest hole – and presumably the one that Gideon is using – is 8 feet by 8 feet and very shallow. Imagine trying to thresh your wheat in an enclosure the size of your average bathroom! Ridiculous.
But Gideon is fearful and is harboring a defeatist attitude. So when the Angel of the Lord appears to him and calls him a “mighty man of valor,” Gideon’s response is more or less sarcastic. Then Gideon goes on with a long litany of complaints about what a victim he is and how his people are sorely pressed. “And YOU, God, where were YOU when all this was happening? What happened to all your big promises?”
Gideon, the limaceous thresher, the quintessential victim. That he – or his countrymen – have any responsibility to do something about their situation probably never darkens the recesses of his mind. Until now.
Lance Morrow talks about just such a culture: “The victim’s passion for blaming everyone except himself…tends to produce a depressing civic stupidity….Victims become addicted to being victims; they derive identity, innocence and a kind of devious power from sheer, defaulting helplessness.” Morrow isn’t talking about Gideon, mind you. He’s talking about us.
Gideon blamed God and the Midianites for fear and hard times. Who do we blame? Try everyone. Jesse Birnbaum, one of Morrow’s associates, writes, “There is surely something in the American air that inspired the estate of Christopher Duffy of Framingham, Massachusetts, who stole a car from a parking lot and got killed in a subsequent accident, to sue the proprietor of the lot for failing to prevent auto thefts.”
Psychiatrist Hilde Bruch maintains that all patients come to her with one common problem: the sense of helplessness, the fear and inner conviction of being unable to cope and to change things. “One of the roots of this ‘sense of impotence’ in the majority of patients,” she says, “is some desire to partially or totally escape the pain of freedom, and therefore some failure to accept responsibility for their problems and their lives.”
We all have pain in our lives. We don’t like it. That’s why it’s called, “pain.” And we can respond to it in a number of ways. We can ignore it (it’s not our problem). We can succumb to it (we are perpetual victims). Or we can see it as a summons. It can be a call to be more than what we already are. In the end, pain can be redemptive.
We can start by telling the truth. In his book, Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis presents to us Orual, sister of the beautiful Psyche and long-time critic of the gods. Orual rails against the gods for depriving her of her sister’s company. But her real frustration comes in never getting any answers. The book in many ways is one long litany of complaints. Then, at the end, she has an epiphany. She realizes that her search for the truth has ended unexpectantly. “The complaint was the answer,” she says. “To have heard myself making it was to be answered.”
Here she has finally confronted the harsh truth of her life, the illusions about herself, about those around her, about the gods, the ways she has manipulated everyone and everything around her for her own benefit and out of self-pity. Her confrontation with herself is summarized in the novel’s climactic words: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer….How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
Up to that humiliating point where Gideon is threshing grain in the winepress, he remains faceless – admittedly, the weakest son of the weakest family in the weakest of the Israelite tribes. He is a self-proclaimed and perpetual victim, relegated to hiding in fear and blaming God for his situation. And the Angel of the Lord’s summons to Gideon? “GET A LIFE, o mighty man of valor!”
The Angel of the Lord knew that Gideon could not defeat the Midianites without help. He wasn’t asking that at all. Rather, he was looking for commitment. Resources would follow.
Tim Bowden, in his book, One Crowded Hour, tells of an incident that happened in Borneo during the confronation between Malaysia and Indonesia in 1964. A group of Gurkhas from Nepal, world famous for their ferocity and commitment in battle, were asked if they would be willing to jump from transport aircraft into combat against the Indonesians. The next day, one of their NCO’s sought out the British officer who made the request and said that they would be prepared to jump, but only under certain conditions.
First, because of their inexperience in this type of combat, the Gurkhas agreed to jump if the land were marshy and had no rocky outcroppings. The British officer replied that since the drop zone would be over jungle, they would not have to worry about the terrain.
Second, the Gurkhas wanted the pilots of the transports to fly as slowly as possible and at an altitude of 100 feet. The British officer pointed out that the transports made it a regular routine to fly as slowly as possible during a drop, but that flying at 100 feet would make the drop impossible because parachutes would not open in time from that height.
“Oh,” said the Gurkhas. “You didn’t mention anything about parachutes.”