Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95
Many of us have probably heard the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and the fiery furnace from our childhood. It’s a popular story which has a powerful message even to children. The dominant theme of course, demonstrates honor to those who do what is right. Secondary themes include how God looks after and protects those who do what is right– and it even acknowledges to children that powerful people have the ability to do bad things. All of these themes of course are true, but since the Church gives us this reading in the Lenten Season, what does this story mean on our Lenten journey?
Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful king of Babylon, took his seat on the throne around 605 BCE. During the reign of his next 43 years he spent considerable resources enlarging the boundaries of Babylon creating his empire. He was a man who could take things by force and could manipulate others. He was the one who took Jerusalem, destroying the temple and all semblance of the religion of the people of Israel. And he is the one who deported most of the educated and wealthy people back to Babylon. This event in Judeo-Christian history is known as the Babylonian Exile. Nebuchadnezzar is not a king who accepts "No" for an answer.
Yet in the midst of building his empire, he has an encounter with some social demonstrators who choose civil disobedience. Normally, he would simply eliminate them, and Daniel’s account reveals his attempt at doing this. As remarkable as it is for the four in the furnace, (an angel has appeared to comfort them) perhaps more remarkable is what happens to Nebuchadnezzar . A man who previously always got what he wanted and saw himself as superior to all others, now places himself humbly under "the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego." In blessing their God and honoring their defiance to himself, he reverences their faithfulness to their deity. If a person whose heart is as hard as Nebuchadnezzar can experience conversion then we are capable of it too in this Lenten season.
Now this is only going to get stickier. By Jesus’ day there are several stories of people coming to faith that are outside of the Jewish community of Jesus. This seems to be a very touchy subject. Recall in Luke’s gospel, (4:14-29) when Jesus was in his own synagogue in Nazareth. All were singing such praise of him. Jesus simply mentions two people: Naaman the Syrian, and a widow of Zarephath. Both are outsiders to this community’s faith context. Luke says that after Jesus mentions these two, the whole community rose up with indignation wanting to throw him over the brow of the hill.
Today we are given the contrast. What happens when the hard hearted King of the Babylonian empire understands the greatness of the Lord, yet the "Descendants of Abraham" which we hear about in the gospel refuse to believe and come to faith?
A question to ponder today: How open are you to allow "outsiders" to reveal to you the mystery of the kingdom of God?
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is on the staff at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, California.