The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


May 7, 2024

The Ambitious Priest

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Even the purest religions go astray in time. In the book of Judges is a story which opens with the mother whose son returns money he has stolen from her. Overjoyed, she thanks the Lord and then vows she will use a portion of the returned money to make an idol dedicated to the Lord. An idol dedicated to the Lord? What was she thinking? How does this happen? How do people get turned around when the commandment is so clear? It is not just making an idol but thinking the idol is a way to worship God. It is still true today, isn’t it? We have people (even religious leaders) who have so twisted the Gospel that making idols for the Lord seems normal. 

Yet, the story gets stranger.

Her son, Micah, with a house full of idols has installed his son as the family priest. One day, a young Levite on the road looking for a place to stay and no doubt a better position is recruited by the wealthy Micah to become his paid personal priest. “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.” How quickly faith becomes superstition. Of course, no Levite could be a priest but as there was no market for a Levite it was an easy distinction to overlook. It was a useful transaction and served them both. 

Yes, there was a deal but no sense of legitimate ordination. In “Working The Angles” Eugene Peterson writes, “You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister or our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularists hopes for something better.”

That was the furthest thing from their minds. The young Levite had found a place but would keep his options open. His new patron had found a lucky charm for as long as he could keep him.

Chaplains To Power

Our Levite, Jonathan, is a young and ambitious religious entrepreneur but has mistaken a calling for a career. I meet donors and ministry leaders who have fallen into the same trap. The ministry leader becomes the lucky charm for the donor and the donor a meal ticket in return. There is no way to be a priest or prophet this way. All credibility is gone. Telling the truth is at best awkward if not impossible. They become what Ray Bakke has called “chaplains to power.” This Levite was restless in a small town and needed something more. “I’m being wasted here.” He was not greedy for money but for a better position and a relationship with a wealthy man and his family was just the thing - for now. 

In time, raiders from Dan, one of the tribes of Israel, were passing through on their way looking for an easy target and asked the young priest for a blessing. Without hesitation he did just that and assured them they would have success. They were so impressed with his eagerness to please that they returned and convinced him to join them. “Isn’t it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man’s household? Then the priest was glad.” He was so pleased that he helped them steal the household gods and other valuables from his unsuspecting employer, Micah. There was no resistance on his part when his new owners later invaded peaceful and unsuspecting people. “They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. There was no one to rescue them...” He was now complicit and what had started out as mere ambition and the desire to be associated with wealth and influence had become reprehensible. 

Many years before, Moses had warned them what would happen if they wandered down the path of spiritual corruption. Moses could not have known it would be his own grandson, Jonathan, who would be responsible for the unraveling of his grandfather’s life work. The end result of Jonathan’s ambition was the destruction and enslavement of Israel. While not intentional, it was still an ironic tragedy. The combination of so many small elements -  self-indulgence, isolation, disloyalty, pride, misuse of power, distorted theology, and ambition over time leads to the end of a nation. No one saw it coming. Its beginning seemed like such an insignificant thing – a mother’s confusion, a spoiled son and an ambitious young man. But, as in our own lives, one thing leads to another.

Art by Tiety Bouma

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