Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Say "Shibboleth"

. . . They said, "All right, say 'Shibboleth.' “If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan (Judges 12:6).

“Are you one of us?”

We’re constantly asking that question, though not with those words. We know what to listen for. We quickly pick up on clues that reveal a stance or attitude or belief. We arrange the evidence in our minds and reach a conclusion. “Yes, one of us” or “No, not one of us.” The conclusion shapes the relationship.

There’s an odd story in the book of Judges about jealousies that crept up between two Israelite tribes. The tribe of Gilead had gone to war against a familiar nemesis, the Ammonites. Gilead – small and insignificant among the Israelite tribes – came away with an upset victory. This made the tribe of Ephraim jealous. “You should have included us in the fight,” they whined.

Gilead fires back, “We asked for your help, but you wouldn’t respond. We had to protect ourselves so we fought them alone. Get over it.” This answer was not well received. Things got ugly between Gilead and Ephraim. Very ugly. They ended up fighting each other. I’m sure that’s hard for us to imagine. The people of God fighting each other. Family members eaten up with jealousy, taking shots at each other. Unheard of? Not so much.

When Ephraim tried to retreat and escape Gilead, some of them were captured crossing the Jordan. As a way of clearly identifying their enemy, the Gilead tribe demanded that the captured Ephraimites pronounce the word “Shibboleth.”

Ephraimites couldn’t say that word. They tried but it came out “Sibboleth.” Too bad for them. If you can’t say the word, you don’t belong to us. Say it right or say goodnight.

My Dad was asked to say “Shibboleth” the other day. Not the exact word really. He had made a hospital visit but didn’t have his clergy card when he tried to leave the parking garage. The card is basically a pass for free parking. The attendant told him to simply write his name and the name of his church on the parking ticket. And then he added, “Once you do that, I have a test for you.” That got my Dad’s attention.

Dad signed the card and handed it to the attendant, who then questioned him. “You say you are a minister of the gospel . . . everyone knows John 3:16, but can you quote John 3:17?” In other words, say “Shibboleth.” My Dad gladly quoted John 3:17. The attendant praised his knowledge of the scripture and let him leave the parking garage. (So what if Dad had drawn a blank on that verse? I have no idea).

The story from Judges is peculiar, but timely. Within God’s family we keep asking each other to say “Shibboleth.” We keep looking for ways to determine who’s like me and who isn’t. Who’s one of us, and who’s one of them.

The New Testament offers different criteria for knowing the family. Name the name of Jesus and love one another. That sounds good – but it’s so hard. Can’t we find an easy test like “shibboleth?” Shibboleth is easier in some ways, but it’s a wedge that fragments the family. The world takes notice of our love, or lack of it.

Lord Jesus, it is hard to love the brothers and sisters we find in your family. We test each other, assess each other, including some as true family and regarding others as strangers. But you have prayed for our unity and given us a new command to love one another. With your command give us your grace, that we might truly be your children. Amen.

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