Got Chutzpah?

Like snow melt filling the ponds and streams and then the tributaries of mighty rivers, the demands of God’s kingdom continue to grow.  And the ice dams, like that that held back the Missoula flood for untold years, will break under the growing pressure of God’s reign on earth.  And when it breaks out it will change the landscape of human relationships.  But many more hearts will have to tendered to the compassion of the kingdom.  That is the work of Christ and our work today, a work a tendering hearts, first breaking down the resistance to the coming of jubilee values.


So the question is “Got Chutzpah?”


Chutzpah is a Yiddish word for brazenness. The classic description of chutzpah is a person who kills his parents and pleads for the court’s mercy on the ground of being an orphan.  It means shameless audacity.  The word made its Supreme Court debut in a recent opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia as he expressed his exasperation with the National Endowment for the Art’s attempt to defend as non-discriminatory practices that are by definition discriminatory.  Four Jewish guys who would clearly understand chutzpah are the focus of our scripture readings for today.  The first is David.



II Samuel 6: 1-17 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

6When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. 7The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. 8David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. 9David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” 10So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.

12It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 17They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord.



So, Yes, it’s dangerous to take on the task of moving God’s Ark, even with a new cart.  David was not only angry with God when Uzzah was struck down for stabilizing the Ark when it almost toppled off the new cart, he was scared.  For three months he left the Ark, abandoned, in the care of another and only recovered it when it was reported how prosperous the man had become. But it also tells us how when he took on the formidable challenge David was ridiculed by those closest to him, most especially Saul’s daughter and his wife Michal.  How do we balance the challenge of being on the one hand the custodian of that which stands for God in our culture with all its celebration and sacrifice with the potential for disaster and the likelihood of being ridiculed on the other?  


Amos 7:7-17  This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” 10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 17Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

Another Old Testament character in the running for the Chutzpah of the year award was Amos.  “Who me” he asked. “I’m no prophet, I’m a vine dresser and herdsman…” Amos has a simple plumb line in his hand – holding everyone accountable for how they treated others.   Like you or me, we don’t see ourselves as God’s prophets – but when you are given a message that is to be shared about how people are treated you will either bend to community pressure and keep silent or you will stand up in the face of the heat and hold up that plumb line.  It takes chutzpah!


Mark 6:14-28 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.


When ascetic, camel hair-clad John the Baptist appears in the Judean wilderness preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” even Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee, considered him “a righteous and holy man.” His opinion, however, was not shared by his wife, Herodias.   She held a mortal grudge against John since he declared to her husband  “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, Herodias is Herod Antipas’ niece, sister-in-law and wife. Marrying daughters to uncles or cousins was common in the family of Herod and was not regarded by Romans or Jews as incest.  We will need to dig a bit deeper to understand John’s accusation which so infuriated Herodias. 


She was from the highest pinnacles of society. She was the grand daughter of King Herod and Mariamne I, one of Herod’s ten wives. While quite young she became the wife of Herod’s fourth son, Herod II, one of two children who shared the birth-name of the King.  After the execution of the sons of Mariamne I, the King named Herod II second in succession to the throne to Antipater III.  That was a real step up the ladder for Herodias but her ambitions were frustrated when because of political disloyalty King Herod disinherited her husband.   So later, when Herod II’s, half brother, Herod Antipas, who ruled a quarter their father’s realm, persuaded her to divorce her husband and marry him, she agreed, on the condition that he divorce his current wife, a Jordanian princess. While wife swapping wasn’t uncommon in Roman Society, under Jewish law a woman was not permitted to leave a living husband to marry another. John’s accusation threatened Herodias’ royal ambitions.  I guess we’ve got to acknowledge that chutzpah isn’t gender specific. 


Quite conflicted, Herod Antipas has John imprisoned, not so much to punish him as to protect him from Herodias, who wanted “to kill him.” And then, at a birthday party, Herodias’ young daughter dances for her stepfather and his guests. The only gospel description of the dance is that it “pleased Herod” but Herod’s words of appreciation suggest a remarkable performance indeed. “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it,” Herod Antipas tells the girl. “Whatever you ask for I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” What Richard Muhlberger appropriately called “the only truly sensual episode in the New Testament” comes to a macabre conclusion.

The daughter dutifully consults with her mother who tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. She makes her request and Herod gives the order. John’s head, we are told, “was immediately brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 


We have to look outside the Gospel’s for a name for the young woman who danced.  Josephus said her name was Salome.  It is a story that has captured our attention over the centuries.  In the winter of 1876 Gustave Flaubert composed and published a senuous tale called: Herodias and it became the basis for Massenet’s opera Herodiade.  Richard Strauss then composed his one act opera, turning the focus from Herodias to the daughter Salome.  Then Oscar Wilde followed suite. One of the aspects of the story that makes it repugnant yet magnetic to us is the choice that Herod made to maintain his reputation among his colleagues at the expense of another man’s life.  The biblical story isn’t the dance of Salome, it is, on one hand, the dance of Herodias. It is a story that causes us to ask what people are willing to do to retain their place of privilege and power. But it is as well the dance of Herod, whose warped code of ethics cost John the Baptist his life – chutzpah deprivation.

Ephesians 1: 3-14

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

In the Greek this whole passage is one single sentence! In its day it was read as wonderful and hymn like. It speaks of Christ as something akin to an expanding sphere of influence intent on filling the whole universe. This gives shape to its and our own understanding of mission. The earth shall be filled with God’s goodness. Sometimes the focus appears to be on renewal and positive transformation which will be good for people. Sometimes one has the impression that it is all about subordination and absorption. The heavenly and spiritual space appears not to be a far away place but a dimension of existence in the here and now as we participate in this life.

In this instance the benefit appears as redemption, deliverance, spelled out as forgiveness of sins. Here the mystery is about God’s plan to bring oneness. It is all encompassing with Christ filling all things. Near the end the subject changes from the editorial “we” of the author to a humanity inclusive ‘you’.  Paul celebrates that ‘those afar off’, generically the Gentiles, have been included and the barriers which discriminated against them and the old law and its accretions have been broken down.


The Spirit is ours and theirs also. The Spirit not only spurs on our hope but enacts it in the present as the first bit of evidence that hope has substance. Might it be as large as Jesus’ own vision which by the Spirit he lived as an agenda which effected change and embodied overcoming barriers of discrimination in his lifetime? This helps us to more clearly see ourselves, our world and our place in it.


Over 30 years ago Ron Sider argued: “The fact of the resurrection assures us that the way of nonviolent love will ultimately prevail. Our nonviolent campaigns can be joyful celebrations of his coming victory at the same time that we experience the cross of police brutality, prison and death. We know that at his coming the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and the nonviolent One shall reign forever.”


Like snow melt filling the ponds and streams and then the tributaries of mighty rivers, the demands of God’s kingdom continue to grow.  And the ice dams, like that that held back the Missoula flood for untold years, will break under the growing pressure of God’s reign on earth.  And when it breaks out it will change the landscape of human relationships.  But many more hearts will have to tendered to the compassion of the kingdom.  That is the work of Christ and our work today, a work a tendering hearts, first breaking down the resistance to the coming of jubilee values.


So the question is “Got Chutzpah?”





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