One of the scripture readings for June 15 is the first chapter of the Book of Daniel. It sets the scene for Daniel’s experience as a prisoner of the Babylonians. Daniel and three other Israelite prisoners are chosen to work in the king’s service. The Babylonians serve them food that they could not eat if they wanted to follow the dietary laws of Moses. Daniel leads them in rejecting the non-kosher food. The four young men eat only vegetables, but thrive, because God supports them in their faith. Their victory consists of maintaining their integrity.
The story further develops the theme of spiritual integrity. Daniel and his companions consistently choose to face death rather than compromise their faith. Their faith helps them survive deadly situations. The story of Daniel in the lions’ den and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passing through the fiery furnace have encouraged untold numbers of people who follow the Abrahamic faiths.
Despite the Bible stories that tell of Hebrew triumphs against such foes as Pharaoh, the Amalekites, and the Philistines, the reality was that the Hebrews were a small people, usually living under the domination of a greater power. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans took turns ruling the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian world. The Hebrews had to figure out how to maintain their spiritual integrity in a world dominated by polytheistic empires. Their victory was to maintain their faith in the one god who was never represented by an idol.
We Americans love to win, and we have a habit of considering it our birthright. We are proud of our cultural and military dominance in world affairs. In domestic politics, we focus intensely on winning.
During a family visit this winter, my sister and I were able to watch the ice skating program in the Beijing Olympics. We were thrilled by Nathan Chen’s gold medal performance to the background of “Rocket Man,” by Elton John. However, we also enjoyed many performances by skaters who were honored to represent their countries in the Olympics, but did not expect to win a medal. The communication between a Japanese skater and his father/coach, a former skater, was touching. Getting to the Olympics was a mutual achievement that brought them both joy.
Skaters who didn’t expect to win a medal probably dreamed of what it would be like to do so, but they were realistic, and appreciated the opportunity to compete with world class athletes. Perhaps the joy and honor of participation moved them more than the thrill of winning a medal.
Daniel and his companions had no hope of achieving military victory over their Babylonian overlords. In fact, the exiled Hebrew men served their captors to the best of their ability. They served a foreign empire but guarded the integrity of their souls.
The civilizations that dominated the geopolitical world of the Bible have all faded, though not without leaving their mark on human culture. The people who owe their faith to the spiritual integrity of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have multiplied. A small group of archaeologists pore over the remnants of ancient Babylon, but millions of people study the Hebrew Scriptures, and the scriptures descended from those texts, on a daily basis.
As much as I love my country, I need to remind myself that geopolitical power fades. Spiritual integrity endures.
Let us pray...
God who is not made of stone or wood, who cannot be captured in an idol of wood or stone, help us to remember that spiritual integrity is necessary for our faith to endure. Help us to match our actions with our faith. If we face danger when we follow our faith, remind us that you are always with us, even in the fiery furnace and the lions’ den.