1 Samuel 16:1-13 is the story of Samuel the prophet, allegedly under instructions from his God, going to the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite (and the invisible Mrs Jesse) and choosing a new king from among Mr and Mrs Jesse’s sons (not daughters) while the current king (Saul) was still alive and reigning.
Yes, this is good ol’ fashioned treason. By Samuel. By Jesse. And by David too.
But we need to be careful about thinking this story is history. Yes, there probably was a Samuel, a Jesse, and a David. But this choosing of the ‘ruddy’ one with ‘beautiful eyes’ is a part of the apologetic myth created to support the insurrection instigated by David and his band, and to support David’s eventual triumph in deposing of Saul and becoming king.
There are a mix of messages in this bible reading. Samuel, with God sitting on his shoulder whispering in his ear, chooses not the oldest son, nor the strongest, nor the expected. He chooses the last born, the least, the one not even there – he was out doing the dogsbody work. But there is a subtext, for we are told how ‘handsome’ (with beautiful eyes) David is, and later how strong and brave he is in tackling lions and bears.
I mean, let’s get real, choosing the least doesn’t mean that he can’t be handsome, strong and courageous? After all this is a PR exercise!
And that’s the heart of it. This is a PR exercise. How the lowly reached the mighty heights. The last born, against all odds, becomes the chosen ruler. How the wee one, the ‘Frodo’, takes on the lions, bears, and goliaths. All by the will of God. Of course. God always backs the winner.
This story is just one episode in a major myth-making public relations campaign that also includes the episodes of the Goliath story, the friends with the kings’ son (Jonathon) story, the Saul’s poor mental health story, and the David’s weeping over Saul’s death make-believe. All of it is a convoluted fictional explanation to Saul’s followers, and the populace generally, of how God’s chosen Saul ceased to be God’s chosen and David became the new God’s chosen. (Always be wary of the phrase “God’s chosen”).
The number of stories and the justifying explanations say to me that Saul actually had many friends and followers who were at best ambivalent about this change of leadership. So, the myth makers had to put in about Saul’s health, David’s respect and ‘love’ for Saul and his family, and of course David’s amazing prowess in battle.
Today the legacy of the David myth though is not the court power politics, nor really the Davidic dynasty and empire myth (that some modern-day Zionists use to bolster their arguments), nor really the ridiculous assertion that Jesus in any way was the royal successor of David. No, the legacy of this passage of scripture is the second half of verse 7 – “God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.’
I would like to suggest to you that this verse might be an insert, a quote from an earlier piece of writing or oral memory. It’s a saying that comes from a different context, a different theological context. For as I’ve mentioned the writer/editor wants to tell us that actually David, though the last son born of Jesse, was by no means the least. That Samuel did actually look on the outward appearance: ‘the ruddy one with beautiful eyes’. But in a hierarchical patriarchal world he wouldn’t have been Samuel’s first choice. So, into our text is inserted a known piece of theological wisdom: “God does not see as mortals see… but God looks on the heart.’
And this piece of theological wisdom needs to be given new life, as it has been, beyond the context of choosing kings and rulers. The outward does not always reflect the inner. We can be fooled. The nice polite neighbour might actually be a right so-and-so as a workmate. The successful confident leader might be deeply insecure and needy. The gruff and monosyllabic tradie might be a gentle and caring father. People often aren’t what they seem.
We make judgements based on the outer appearance.
We live in a world of images. How you look is all important. What you dress in, how you speak, your hair… in an image world are elevated in importance. Body image. Lauding some, confining even condemning others.
This piece of theological wisdom is inviting us to look again. To look beyond the obvious. To look on the heart.
“God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.’
Passion is one of those words that is a translator’s nightmare. For its meanings are multiple and contradictory. It can be suffering, great suffering. It can mean love, great love. It describes strong emotion and thus strong motivation. It can be what riles us up, and what gives us tremendous joy.
It’s the root of the word com(with)-passion. A loving, caring, confronting, healing, justice-love. In Maori: arohatanga (the way of the all-embracing compassion). Compassion is maybe the Church’s best word for what Jesus was on about. And maybe the best description for what we, his followers, are on about.
When I listen to the story of Pillars: Positive Futures for Children of Prisoners I hear passion. I hear the passion (suffering) of children separated from their parent and trying to navigate the world when the world is telling them their parent is ‘bad’. And I hear too the passion of those who have walked with those children (or have been those children), want the future to be different, and so invest themselves into being and making that difference.
Compassion is the builders’ plumbline for the Church. It tells us whether the structure we’re creating and investing ourselves in will be strong and endure. Forget finance, personnel, planning, and all that important stuff. Compassion is the outcome we are seeking. And also, the energy in getting there.
So, we need to look past the outward appearances and look to the heart. Compassion is a heart word.
nthony De Mello tells this story:
“One evening, there was a family that went out to dinner at a local restaurant. Everyone got a menu, even the youngest, Aimee, who was 6 years old. Since the conversation was an ‘adult’ one, Aimee sat there ignored.
When the waitress took their orders, she came to Aimee last. “And, what would you like to eat, young lady?” she asked. Aimee answered, “I will have a hamburger, chips, and a large diet coke”.
“No”, said her mother. “She will have a small salad with low fat dressing, baked chicken, carrots and boiled rice”. “And milk to drink”, chimed in her father.
The waitress looked at Aimee and asked, “Would you like tomato sauce or mustard on your hamburger”? She said, “Tomato sauce please. Oh, and put lots of lettuce in the hamburger too to please my parents. Thank you very much”.
As the waitress walked away to place the order, Aimee turned toward her family and said, “You know what? She thinks I’m real”.”
This is not a story about nutrition, and the rights and wrongs thereof. This is a story about us adults seeing past ourselves and relating to children as, in Aimee’s word, ‘real’. Regardless of food tastes.
But actually, it’s primarily a story about a waitress (who are invariably low paid) risking her employment (the parents could have easily complained to the management) to make a statement about the importance of everyone, even a child. For in the world of power and privilege, which is the world we all live in, to see past outward appearances and relate to everyone who has a heart, with real heart, takes both courage and insight.
I’m reminded of an incident where one of my children (then a teenager) and a waiter at the Northern Club likewise risked his employment by refusing to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman. And you can imagine clientele at the Club not appreciating such perceived impertinence. For him the child soon to be born was also real and worthy of being respected. To their credit the Northern Club management backed him.
This morning I want us to do something different. On the back of page of the service sheet I’ve written two questions: ‘What gets me riled up?’ and ‘What gives me great joy?’ Both are different ways of asking what we are passionate about.
And I’m really interested in your answers. So please write them down. And then find someone to talk with about them. When we come to the offertory hymn, I’d like you to put what you’ve written in the offertory plate – for our passions are indeed an offering to God, as well as a blessing to each other.
You can choose whether you want to put your name with what you’ve written or not.