Summary: Gideon's failure appears to be ambition sneaking in after he made the right original decision that poisoned Abimelech's character. Jotham's fable is a cautionary tale.
I know you’ve all heard me quote the brilliant Jewish novelist, Elie Wiesel, on many occasions. The famed author of Night and Jewish philanthropist once said, “Some stories are true that never happened.” He didn’t mean, of course, that we should chuck our healthy skepticism out the window when people tell us things. What he meant was that stories are often more powerful than arguments because they get us far enough away from the “trees” of details in our situations that we can actually see the “forest” of general principles in our decision-making process.
In a similar way, the former Notre Dame ethics professor and prolific writer, Alasdair MacIntyre, once wrote: “In all those cultures, Greek, medieval or Renaissance, where moral thinking and action is structured according to some version of the scheme that I have called classical, the chief means of moral education is the telling of stories.”
So, it shouldn’t surprise us that even the Bible would use
a fable to illustrate a timeless truth we need to see. I don’t want you reading Judges 9:8-15 and saying to yourselves, “Trees don’t talk. This can’t happen. I’m not going to believe anything else in the Bible because of this silly story.” That would be stupid. Jotham uses a fable in Judges 9 so that he can make his point without being killed. The full impact of the story doesn’t come through until he explains it in Judges 9:16-20. Then, you see that he isn’t really talking about trees. He’s talking about potential leaders. And this cautionary tale applies, sadly, even in terms of church leadership.
You’ve all heard the saying, “Power corrupts.” You may even have heard its corollary, written by Lord Acton (a 19th century British politician): "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Such wisdom is so correct that it is no wonder that Jesus demonstrated to His disciples that the One who would be “great” needed to begin by being a servant. It is only this servant attitude that can transform us from humans who abuse power to citizens of heaven who use power as God intends.
Last week, we considered Gideon—a servant of God who was so obedient to God that he earned the name “Baal is ticked off at him.” Okay, it really means that “Baal contends with him,” but you get the idea. Here is a leader who, completely dependent upon God, routs a much larger army through stealthy positioning unveiled by praise. Then, as part of the clean-up effort where he followed through on the God-given victory, he apparently took on both of the kings of Midian (Zebah and Zalmunna) in single combat and killed both of them. He celebrated by looting the bling off their camels’ necks (Judges 8:21).
Naturally, this martial feat so impressed the people of Israel that they decided (Judges 8:22) that Gideon/Jerubbaal had sufficient military might to protect them from any further Midianite incursions. So, they asked Gideon to not only be their king but to establish a dynasty. Notice that the people had lost perspective on the victory. During the initial battle, they had proclaimed that it was the sword of the LORD and of Gideon that provided their deliverance. Now, they want the leader they can see, not the leader they’ve been taught about and have to trust in faith, that evidence of things not seen.
Fortunately, Gideon knew better. He took a “Sherman.” We hear about the “Sherman” nearly every presidential election season. The very popular General William Tecumseh Sherman was asked about his presidential aspirations and he nipped any speculation in the bud right from the start when he said, “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.” Gideon put it just as succinctly in Judges 8:23 when he said that neither he nor his son would rule over the Israelites. Why? He explains at the end of the verse. Israel already had a king because God was their king.
The most dangerous thing any leader can do is forget that God is in charge. However, even a great hero like Gideon can make a mistake. He decides that he must “Carpe diem!” (“Seize the day!”) and get something out of the situation, striking while the iron is hot as it were. So, he does what most religious leaders do, he takes an offering. And, he doesn’t want them to take his request as meaningless, so he sets a goal for this offering—1,700 shekels of gold in addition to the spoils he had already taken from the two kings in single combat. And what is his intent with regard to this offering?