PROFILES IN COURAGE: The Biblical Version
by Sr. Jeanette von Herrmann, OSB
Recently, I once again came across JFK’s Profiles in Courage. Written while Kennedy was a senator, this Pulitzer Prize-winner tells the stories of senators who courageously took ethical but often unpopular stands. These biographies of such senators as John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, and Daniel Webster demonstrate political courage and commitment to what each thought was worth sacrificing position and support. For example, Sam Houston had been elected governor of Texas, but when Texas joined the Confederacy, Houston refused to be inaugurated because of his commitment to the preservation of the Union.
Throughout history, many men and women have courageously chosen to act as they felt compelled by their relationship with God, their commitment to justice, and their belief that our convictions and actions influence one another. Most of us will not make monumental decisions that will change the course of world history, but even small acts of courage change us as individuals and change the lives of those around us. As the fluttering of butterfly wings in Brazil alters the weather in Japan, so our small, but not insignificant, actions have greater impact than we imagine. Each act of courage that we witness or exhibit and each act of kindness that we offer or receive affects the course of our lives and the lives of those we inspire.
Who are the biblical characters whose words and actions embodied their faith and commitment to God’s Word? Who are the biblical heroes who responded when asked to be human examples of the Torah and Gospel? Who are those men and women who reach through the centuries to encourage us to be brave and daring in our own day?
First and foremost, Jesus Christ is the example of that courage. He incarnated the Father’s insistence that we all must be in union with God, lovers of one another, and risk-takers who sacrifice to make the kingdom of God present in our world.
This resolve to live a righteous life with and for God’s people is also seen in Jesus’ disciples, in the prophets who demanded justice, in the early Israelites who left everything in Egypt, in the many who took great risks to save others, and in the early church martyrs who died rather than abandon their commitment. On almost every page of scripture, we find people who are deeply faithful and profoundly courageous. The hidden heroes who didn’t make the front page are like most of us: ordinary, average, even humdrum. They challenge us to have courage and to walk in the path of righteousness.
The story of this father is found in Luke 8:40-56 as well as in Mark and Matthew. Jairus is almost overlooked as the narrator concentrates on his daughter’s illness and how Jesus raised her from the dead. However, Jairus was a courageous loving father who solicited Jesus’ help for his dying child. As Jesus headed toward Jairus’ home and family, a servant approached with the news that the girl had died. The father didn’t have a chance to react to the sad news or petition Jesus before he was told not to fear, just to have faith. Jairus already had a profound faith, enough to come to Jesus publicly, to fall at his feet, and to beg for help, trusting that it would be given. His faith grew as he followed Jesus and with his wife witnessed Jesus’ command, “Little girl, rise!” In this case, a father’s courage resulted in life for his daughter. What kind of courage are we called to exhibit to bring life to children? What stand should we take so that children don’t go to bed hungry, cold, and unloved?
This story, found in Judges 3, contrasts Israel’s doing “what was evil in the Lord’s sight” with Ehud’s faith and boldness. Though Israel was unfaithful, God provided a deliverer, Ehud, to rescue them from the oppressive Moabites. Ehud’s bravery and commitment enabled him to risk his life to save his people. Fortunately, Ehud had a secret that allowed him to outwit his enemies: he was left-handed. He was able to hide his sword on his right side when the enemy expected swords to be on the left. Ehud asked the Moabite king to meet him alone in the royal chambers. The king agreed and dismissed all the servants. Then Ehud drew his sword, killed the king, locked the doors to the king’s rooms, and escaped. The servants waited a long time before disturbing the king. Eventually they entered and found the king dead. While this is a violent story, Ehud shows how boldness and reliance on God can overcome oppression and lead to a faithful relationship with God. Ehud’s story invites us to examine our own unique gifts seeking how those talents can be used in the service of justice and integrity.
The book of Esther tells about a 180-day feast to which the king of Persia invited all his officials. This was meant to demonstrate his power, prestige, and wealth. The king expanded this display with a seven-day banquet for all the people living in the winter capital. On the seventh day, the king commanded his attendants to bring Queen Vashti into his presence so that he might flaunt her beauty. The narrator implies that Vashti was being treated like any of the king’s possessions, just another item to be exhibited so that others might be impressed. Vashti, a valiant woman, refused, and the king was furious. He conferred with advisers who stated that Vashti had insulted the king and all the realm’s officials. They reasoned that when other women learned of her actions, they would scorn their husbands. They advised that as her punishment she would never again be allowed in the king’s presence and that another would replace her as queen. One senses the irony: the punishment was exactly what initially had caused the offense. One might ask whether Vashti was an abused wife or a woman who was valued only for her beauty. No doubt she was courageous in refusing the king’s demand since she had no idea what the consequences would be. The rest of the Book of Esther shows how strength, courage, and fidelity were also Esther’s gifts as she, ironically, risked everything by coming into the king’s presence without being summoned. These women took great risks with a king who was power-hungry and fickle. Perhaps our ethical choices and our ability to speak up will give support to valiant women who are in vulnerable positions.
Appearing in Mark 10, Bartimaeus had more nerve than courage. As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus yelled, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). The crowds tried to silence him, thinking he was an embarrassment. But Bartimaeus would not be stopped in his quest to receive mercy. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus’ response, “Master, I want to see” had profound implications. His courage led not just to physical vision but to the insight of faith. He left his possessions and “followed Jesus on the way.” Courage produced faith, and faith led to discipleship. Bartimaeus is a model encouraging us to not give up our quest for faith. May we, too, take chances and not care what others think about us as we seek grace and reconciliation for ourselves and others.
Deborah, Barak, and Jael
Judges recounts how the Israelites “again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” This time it was Jabin, the king of Canaan, and Sisera, his general, who dominated them. Deborah, a prophetess, judged Israel at that time, so the Israelites went to her for counsel. She summoned Barak, her general, and commanded him to march against the Canaanites. However, Barak would only attack Sisera if Deborah went into battle with him. She warned him that the Lord was going to hand Sisera “into a woman’s power” and, therefore, Barak would not be the one to gain glory. The Lord threw the Canaanites into a panic in the presence of Barak’s forces. Sisera fled to the tent of Jael, a Kenite. When he fell asleep, Jael killed him and notified Barak. Once the Israelites had repented of doing wrong, God rescued them, using Deborah, Barak, and Jael as unusual and unexpected agents. A female judge, a foreign woman, and a general who went into battle under the leadership of a woman were not typical heroes. They were wise and courageous. They responded to what their people needed. The courage wasn’t in the physical risk, the battle, or the killing of the enemy. Rather, the courage was in listening to what God wanted of them and responding in spite of the dangers.
All these biblical characters show us that heroism, virtue, and ethics really are commonplace. They are the examples that give us hope that there is goodness, integrity, and righteousness in the world around us. They give us the clues and the hints so that we can recognize heroism in the ordinary and courage in plain sight. May we be strong and courageous, ethical and just, for we know that our God walks with us wherever we go.
This article originally appeared in Spirit & Life, October 2018.