Post by Kathleen Schwab
Recently Ft. Lauderdale, Florida passed a city ordinance forbidding feeding the homeless. Arnold Abbot, a 90-year-old who has been preparing meals for the homeless for over 20 years, continued his ministry and was arrested. He said of his decision, “God is on our side, but he is not subpoena-able.”
That is the problem. You have to decide yourself what God calls you to do, and then live with the consequences. Arnold Abbot cooked for the homeless for many years before doing so became illegal, and he had to decide whether he was willing to be arrested. The court, after all, was not going to accept as a defense that God told him to do it. So how do you know where to draw the line as a follower of God? How far is too far? Everyone talks about boundaries these days, but before you can defend your boundaries you have to decide where to put them.
Two stories come to mind about this question: the three Israelites threatened with the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, and the Syrian official healed of leprosy in 2 Kings 5. Both tell stories about people who make decisions about how they will live out their commitment to God. In this post I will talk about the first, and in the next, about the second. I think looking at both together is important, because they seem to say almost opposite things.
The story of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abendago in Babylon is the more straightforward of the two. The Babylonians conquer Israel around 500 BC. Nebecanezzer, the Babylonian king, claims the upper-class young men of conquered societies for his own service, and Shadrach, Meshack, and Abendago are carried off to Babylon, to live in the king’s court and train to become advisors. There, they run into a variety of problems due to their allegiance to the One God of Israel. The worship of many gods is normal throughout the region; only Israel worships only one god exclusively. While individuals may have favorite gods, everyone takes for granted the idea that a whole pantheon of gods exist. The exclusivity of Israel’s God isn’t understood or valued in other places, and this runs our heroes into trouble.
Nebuchadnezzer is also presented as a bit of a big ego, and he decides that he is going to have a large golden statue of himself cast, and gather all his court, together to make obeisance to it. Claiming divinity wasn’t unusual for powerful leaders in the ancient world: Egypt and Rome both built temples to their rulers, sometimes after the rulers were dead, but sometimes while they were still living. Early medieval kings in Europe claimed to be descended from the pagan gods, and after these societies converted to Christianity their kings began tracing their lineage to Christian saints, the next best thing that the religion offered. So the desire to shore up political power with a supernatural identity has a long history.
Nebuchadnezzer leaves nothing to chance, and when he presents his golden statue, a large furnace is lighted, and an announcement is made that anyone who refuses to bow to the statue will be thrown into the flames. Shadrach, Meshack, and Abendago, formerly of Israel, but now serving in the king’s court of Babylon, refuse to worship the image; they are expressly forbidden to worship because they are expressly forbidden to worship images N calls them to himself and asks what in the world they are thinking: “Do you think your God can deliver you from the fiery furnace?”
Their reply is interesting, “Our God is able to deliver us, but even if He does not, we will not bow the knee to you.” As a definition of boundaries, this is powerful. When we set a boundary, when we choose to act because we are convinced God is calling, part of the decision should always be the knowledge that success is not guaranteed. The young men knew they could die in the furnace. They stuck with their decision to keep the second commandment, regardless, and worship no other gods.
We all know what happens: they are tossed into the furnace, the fire burns up only the ropes that bind them, and a fourth figure is seen walking in the flames with them. When they emerge unhurt, not only have they survived execution, they have had a unique encounter with God: they have walked in the fire with “One who appears like a Son of Man.” While many renditions of this story emphasize the miraculous deliverance, I personally find the most instructive part of the story is their statement that even if God does not swoop in and save them, they are resolved. After all, we can’t control when or how God will do miracles, but we can set our hearts to do the right thing, and accept the consequences with dignity.
Look out for part 2 next week: “Into the House of Rimmon”