Ends, Means, Joy

“The ends justify the means.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this statement or some equivalent over the years. The government does it: we need to balance the budget, so we’ll hang teachers, the elderly, the middle class, etc., out to dry. Businesses do it: we need to cut costs to pad the bottom line to please shareholders to get fat bonuses for execs, so we’ll axe the livelihood of so many. And Christians do it: we need to have money to go on this missions trip, so we’ll skip our tithe this month. The idea is that the treasure at the end of the rainbow warrants overlooking the fact that the rainbow is covered in sludge. In other words, we can do whatever we need to as long as the final product is supposedly good.

But is it true?

At the start of Judges 9, Abimilech and the people of Shechem were pretty pleased with themselves. Abimilech’s father, Gideon, had had seventy sons, and after the judge’s death at the end of chapter 8, the nation of Israel looked to them – all of them – for leadership. Abimilech, however, had aspirations of grandeur. Simply put, he wanted to be in charge. So he rallied the people of Shechem, his mother’s hometown, to pronounce him the new king. The only problem was that Abimilech’s 69 brothers weren’t going to be real pleased with this whole idea, so before they could proceed, Abimilech collected money to hire some mercenaries and go eliminate them. Verse 5 tells us that “he went to his father’s house… and killed his brothers.” In fact, the only one to survive was Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, who hid himself so Abimilech and his thugs couldn’t find him.

So Abimilech became king. It was what everyone wanted. At least, in Shechem. And besides, it was better to have one king than seventy rulers. The ends justified the means. Right?

After the massacre was over and Abimilech had gone to claim his crown, Jotham made his way in vs 7 to Mt. Gerizim. The same Mt. Gerizim, that is, where Moses and the Israelites had pronounced the blessings which the nation would enjoy if they were faithful to their God. And after climbing the mountain, Jotham lifted his voice so that everyone in the area would hear what he had to say, and he told all of Israel the story of when the trees wanted to appoint themselves a king. They had gone to the olive tree, which wouldn’t give up its prestigious job of producing olives to be used for oil and such. They had approached the fig tree, which wouldn’t sacrifice its sweet fruit. And they had asked the vine, which declined to relinquish its part in bringing joy to God and men. Finally, the only remaining candidate to become king over the trees was the scraggly, mean bramble.

Brambles are not really trees. At least, not in my book.

And every time I’ve ever had a run in with a bramble, I’ve always regretted it sorely as the thorns bit into my clothes and my skin.

Simply put, the bramble was the worst possible candidate for king of the trees, bar none. And the point that Jotham was trying to make was that Abimilech was just like that. His rule would never be legitimate. It would only come back to hurt the people of Shechem and the rest of Israel. And worse, in order to realize it, they had killed the 68 innocent sons of a national hero.

So it was with sarcasm that Jotham continued to speak in verse 19: “If you have dealt in truth and integrity with Jerubbaal and his house this day, rejoice in Abimilech, and let him rejoice in you.”

Here’s the deal. Quite often, I tell myself that, if I could just have this or do that, I’ll have joy. So I cut corners and make compromises to achieve that objective. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in life, it’s that God doesn’t honor ill-gotten stuff with joy. In other words, no matter how cool I thought this or that would be – no matter how much joy they should bring me – if I’ve gotten them the wrong way – by lying, cheating, stealing… sinning – the joy I expected is always – always – elusive.

The bottom line, then, is this: the ends do not justify the means. And no matter how great the ends are, if the means weren’t right, God won’t pour out joy.

So if there’s a key to having joy to be found in this verse, I guess it’s simply this: if you want to have joy, act in truth and integrity, even if it means you won’t quite get the ends you think you need.

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