Throughout the seventy year exile that the Israelites endured in Babylon, held captive by the Assyrians, their chief desire was to return to their homeland and their God. The peoples of that time believed that God resided in specific places. The God of Israel lived in Israel. So returning to their homeland was crucial for them if they were to maintain their relationship with their God.
This notion explains a curious incident in the Second Book of Kings, chapter five. The story of Naaman the Leper unfolds in this chapter. Elisha commands him to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Though reticent at first, Naaman is persuaded to do as Elisha bids him. He is completely cured of his leprosy. He returns to Elisha and says: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.” Elisha refuses to accept the gift. Naaman then says: “If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for your servant will no longer make burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the LORD.” Naaman needs the soil to take part of Israel back to his own country so that the God of Israel will reside in his own country.
So it is no wonder that the exiles of Babylon long to return to Israel so that they can worship their God. However, the exile persisted for at least seventy years. The original captives died off and their children were the new slaves of Assyria. When King Darius brings the exile to an end, he tells them to return to their country and to rebuild their temple, even promising to send along supplies for the task. However, by this time the exiles have grown accustomed to their life in Babylon. Reflecting on the hardships of their ancestors who made a similar journey when they were released from Egypt, many of them decided not to return. Those who did decided that it was more important to provide homes for themselves rather than to rebuild the temple. So they occupy their time by sowing their seeds, by building their homes, by making new clothes, and by eating and drinking. This is when the prophet Haggai steps in!
“You have sown much, but have brought in little; you have eaten, but have not been satisfied; you have drunk, but have not become intoxicated; you have clothed yourselves, but have not been warmed; and the hired worker labors for a bag full of holes.” (Haggai 1:6) Upbraiding the people of Israel for putting their own needs before their relationship with God, Haggai has harsh words for the returning exiles.
The conduct of the children of Israel should not surprise us. They actually mirror the behavior of many people of our own time. When Catholic immigrants first came to the United States, they were treated poorly and were often the targets of prejudice and hatred. To protect themselves they banded together and stalwartly formed communities that worshipped together and worked together. However, once this population became the upwardly mobile class, the needs of the Church and the faithful worship of our fathers and mothers has been abandoned so that we can spend time on our own desires and pleasure. Just as the lap of luxury that was Babylon seduced the people of Israel, the luxury that we now enjoy in this country has begun to sap the strength of our faith. We no longer NEED God and can rely upon our own devices.
Listen to the words of the Holy Father this week as he addresses American Catholics. He might just be a latter day Haggai.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator