Teachable moments

Jeremiah 35:1-19

Adversity sometimes brings with it what is now known as a “teachable moment.” This story certainly has that slant. There is a nomadic people forced by an advancing army to seek shelter in a strange environment, there is a temple, a friendly neighborhood prophet and an audience of locals who need to be taught a lesson. It has all the requisite components.

The Rechabites were nomads, descendants of Rechab who was probably either a member of the same tribe as Jethro (or Reuel), the Kenite father-in-law of Moses, or was somehow related to the Kenites. Being nomadic forces a group to live close to the land but without being bound to any one small part of it. They didn’t own land and have to defend it, till fields or vineyards and have to maintain them or erect houses. Their very presence in Jerusalem gave testimony to the threat from the approaching armies. For safety’s sake they entered a strange and probably somewhat overwhelming shelter. It must have been almost claustrophobic for them being inside the city walls when they were used to open fields. They also had to deal with all the bustle, noise and smells of a city when before they had nothing but pure clean air and silence broken only by the wind, the sounds of their clan folk talking or the animals they herded.

Enter Jeremiah the prophet. In his teaching moment, he brought representatives of the Rechabites into the temple and offered them a jug of wine. Most people would consider that good hospitality but to the Rechabites, it was not. Their ancestor Rechab had set the rules and they were to follow them. Those rules were designed to make them an independent people, dependent only on themselves and God. They rejected Jeremiah’s offering and here came the teachable moment. For them, the fact that their ancestor had given the orders was enough. On the other hand, God had given instructions to the Israelites time and again but the people had been unfaithful not just to the law but to the law giver as well.

Jesus taught that there were rules and he boiled them down from ten to two — love God and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. How much simpler could it get? And how much harder could it be to live into those two?

It seems there are often two perspectives of the law, whether it’s local, state, federal or even God’s. One view is that the law is meant to be obeyed and that the safety and well-being of everyone depends on adherence to those laws. That’s one function of law anyway: to set boundaries that protect people, property and, in fact, creation itself. On the other hand, the opposing viewpoint sees the law as irrelevant to their lives and an imposition on their freedom to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no matter who gets in the way. Most folks are somewhere in the middle; they want their rights protected but they also want the right to skirt, bend, stretch or even outright break the law if they don’t think it applies to them or it’s just plain inconvenient. Oddly enough, if the shoe is on the other foot, that’s a whole different story. You can see it play out on every freeway or street corner. There are those who go the speed limit and there are those who don’t, those who use crosswalks on city streets and those who dart across in the middle of the block.

Rechab’s laws gave them boundaries as well as protection. The people obviously felt they were good laws or they wouldn’t have continued to obey them many generations later as their sacred duty to their ancestor. The laws governing Israel and Judah were also set up for a reason, but, unlike the Rechabites, the people of Israel decided that the laws weren’t important to them any more than the close relationship with God. It got just too inconvenient for them.

Jeremiah’s teachable moment for the people of Jerusalem was also a teachable moment for me. How can I expect others to respect the law, any kind of law, if I don’t respect it myself? That brings up a whole new set of problems. A case in point is immigration. The people who live in the area where I live frequently scream loudly that some immigrants are breaking the law by not entering the country legally yet they hire those same undocumented workers to do jobs at a cheaper rate than those who have the legal documents. The law only applies when they want it to, so it seems. They haven’t had their teachable moment yet, most likely, otherwise they might have what a 12-step program would call a “spiritual awakening” or even just a plain awakening. Both have their purpose.

A co-worker wrote an editorial in the local paper the other day about her teachable moment. It came during a stop-smoking public service announcement featuring a woman with no hair or teeth and a stoma, the result of having smoked for a number of years and gotten cancer because of it. The co-worker, a dedicated smoker who has tried unsuccessfully many times to quit, saw that announcement and it hit hard; she is now up to 50+ days of no cigarettes. She said that when she gets a craving, she remembers that woman and is even more determined not to have that same scenario play out in her life. Sometimes it takes someone else’s tragedy to make us wake up and change direction.

God has given us a number of teachable moments, just as he did the people he chose all those millennia ago. When they remembered those moments things went well for them but when they lost sight of them through laziness, greed or impatience, they paid for it, sometimes very dearly. Yet as soon as things got better they went on their way again, forgetting God, the commandments, the covenant and the lot until the next catastrophe. At that moment, suddenly God got very important. Amazing how many things haven’t changed at all over the centuries.

Teachable moments don’t announce themselves ahead of time; they just sort of happen when they are supposed to happen and it is up to me to pick up on what it is I’m supposed to learn from it. Mostly, right now anyway, I think I need to concentrate on looking for the ones that point me to a more spiritual life, not necessarily as a Bible-thumper but as a citizen of the kingdom of God. That citizenship isn’t a superhighway to speed along but rather a winding path with rocks and gullies and streams of water to navigate, strewn with teachable moments that I need to heed.

If I keep my eyes too much on the skies, though, I trip over the things under my feet. If I keep too much attention on my feet, I miss the rainbows. Life, like the law, must be held in a fine balance. Too much either way and I can lose my footing altogether.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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