The Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and through Mizpah-Gilead as well, and from there he went on to the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. “If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the LORD, I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”
Jephthah then went on to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his power, so that he inflicted a severe defeat on them, from Aroer to the approach of Minnith (twenty cities in all) and as far as Abel-keramim. Thus were the Ammonites brought into subjection by the children of Israel.
When Jephthah returned to his house in Mizpah, it was his daughter who came forth, playing the tambourines and dancing. She was an only child: he had neither son nor daughter besides her. When he saw her, he rent his garments and said, “Alas, daughter, you have struck me down and brought calamity upon me. For I have made a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract.”
She replied, “Father, you have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has wrought vengeance for you on your enemies the Ammonites.
Then she said to her father, “Let me have this favor. Spare me for two months, that I may go off down the mountains to mourn my virginity with my companions.” “Go,” he replied, and sent her away for two months. So she departed with her companions and mourned her virginity on the mountains. At the end of the two months she returned to her father, who did to her as he had vowed.
New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USCCB approved http://www.usccb.org/bible/approved-translations
Today’s first reading taps into a deep fear, that if I make a commitment to God, God will take what is most dear to me, what I love the most, what I fear to live without. A decision to call on God for aid that seemed strong, brave and bold in the moment backfires on Jephthah as he is ripped apart by the consequences of his rash vow.
It would be easy to critique the appropriateness of Jephthah’s vow, but that might cause us to miss that his daughter amazingly agrees to help him uphold his promise. Though she mourns a life that might have been, his daughter returns to help her father keep his vow and offers her life for the sake of her people. The rest of the story of Jephthah reveals that the memory of her sacrifice was honored by the women of Israel through the ages.
Mary’s yes to God combined both Jephthah’s holy boldness and his daughter’s supreme humility. It must have been quite a jolt to receive Simeon’s prophecy when they were celebrating the fulfillment of much longed for prayers, but her heart was pierced as she watched and waited with her son as he made the ultimate sacrifice of his life for ours.
We don’t know much about Jephthah in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, except that he soldiered on, leading the Israelites for another six years as Judge. That he was retained as a leader leads me to imagine that his brashness must have been tempered, at least in dealing with his own people. Perhaps a spirit of mercy and compassion grew out of the loss of his beloved daughter.
We also don’t know for sure what happened with Mary. People must have recognized that her experience of the cross had a magnifying effect on her capacity for mercy and compassion. Traditions that grew over time suggest people recognized a spirit within her that became evident at the cross and prompted a desire to honor her as the mother of mercy.
We can’t always know where the consequences of our choices will lead — for ourselves and for those we accompany who face life changing decisions. Instead of becoming paralyzed by fear or dissociating from our emotions with stoic resolve, perhaps we need to ask for the grace or desire for the grace to allow our hearts to be pierced and broken. We pray that the mercy, compassion and love of Jesus can transform us so we might become instruments of his grace for the sake of others.
Mary, Queen of Heaven, come to our aid!
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.