Proper 7b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul… But all Israel and Judah loved David.
Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is a classic example of the difference between love and envy. Two weeks ago we heard of the prophet Samuel’s warning that having a king is a bad idea; last week we heard of how Saul turned bad, and the spirit of the Lord departed from him, and Samuel set off to find a new king for Israel, the boy David. And today we hear the aftermath of young David’s first military victory — his one on one, mano a mano fight with the Philistine champion Goliath.
Saul can’t help but admire this young man, and David becomes a member of the king’s band of most trusted warriors, and their leader. Saul sends David out to battle again and again, and the young man always returns victorious — so victorious in comparison with Saul that the people come to favor David over Saul — and their cheers and their songs about David’s victories begin to ring discordantly in Saul’s ears. Even the music of the harp that David provides to soothe Saul’s vexed spirit becomes an annoyance — even David’s presence arouses Saul to thoughts and acts of mayhem, tossing a spear at David as he plays.
Here we have the very picture of green-eyed envy at its worst, at its most bitter and soul-destroying. Pride, as sins go, is often classed as the worst, but isn’t envy just a form of wounded pride? Saul has God’s favor for a time, and is proud of it. But as it drains away from him and rests on David, isn’t Saul’s resentment and anger just another form of pride? He is angry that someone else is able to do that of which he is no longer capable — and to do it better and more successfully than ever he did. And he just can’t stand it!
So much for envy! what about love? We see great love in Saul’s family too — in his son Jonathan, who, as soon as he sets eyes on David, feels his heart melt as if — as Scripture puts it — his own soul is bound to the soul of David, and he loves him as his own soul. That is powerful language, so powerful that some are embarrassed by it. It reads this way in the Hebrew Scripture, but when the Greeks got around to translating the Hebrew Scripture into their language, they seem to have been so put off by this passage that they left it out of their version of the Bible entirely.
And the urge to omit this story doesn’t stop with the Greeks. Those who prepared the Scripture reading cycle for the whole church chose to offer this passage, what we heard this morning, only as an option — so there will be many congregations who will never encounter it on a Sunday. Yet there it stands, the beginning of what some have called the greatest love story in the whole Bible.
And envy comes into this, too — for Saul knows full well that his son has taken a liking to David — to put it mildly. In succeeding chapters of First Samuel Saul will curse Jonathan on account of David, and even try to kill his own son. For it seems that Saul and Jonathan, father and son, have become rivals (at least in Saul’s mind) for David’s love and loyalty. Talk about a tragic turn to Fathers’ Day!
Of course, it starts even before David kills Goliath — though we didn’t hear that part of the account today, it tells a bit about what bothers Saul. When David first volunteers to take down Goliath, Saul tries to dress him up in his own armor, and gives him his sword. But they don’t fit — as you recall, Saul is a big fella, a mighty warrior. But David is still a boy, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. So he rejects Saul’s armor — which doesn’t fit him — and that unwieldy sword, as I’m sure you recall. So what does he do? He uses his trusty sling and a smooth stone from the riverbed to bring down the proud giant Goliath. Then, after David’s victory, as we heard today, Jonathan, Saul’s son — also a young man about David’s age and size — is so taken with David that he strips off his robe his armor, and gives them to David, along with his sword, his bow, and his belt. Imagine how Saul felt at that moment: this David has rejected me, and chosen my son instead — and my son chooses him, and rejects me! And green-eyed envy is stirred up and Saul begins to give in to the Dark Side, even against his own son. And you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I say I can’t help but see an overtone of another father-son conflict involving turning from good to evil: the relationship of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader!
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Such is the dark side of the force of envy: it cannot bear to see others have what one lacks oneself. But while envy is a powerful force — that Dark Side of the Force — it cannot do what love can do. For even in the midst of this envious struggle, love is there, conquering all, as the Roman poet said.
Think for a moment, about how much of the world is driven by these two engines, love and envy. Think how much they resemble so many of the other pairs of joys and pains, of what builds up and what tries to tear down; and how the building-up always seems to triumph in the end. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about some of these conflicting forces, and how love always manages to triumph in the end. Envy may raise obstacles, but love will knock them down, or pass right through them: for all the dark forces of affliction, hardship, calamity, beating, imprisonment, riot, labor, sleepless nights and hunger — all of these are overcome by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth, and the power of God. All of this is better armor than a mere sword, bow and belt. These are the triumphant weapons of righteousness for a two-fisted fighter inspired with the love of God. All it takes is opening the doors of the heart — turning away from the dark side of envy and embracing true affection and love.
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For with God, and through the love of God, even the seemingly impossible is possible. With God, as the Apostle testifies, the one treated as an imposter is the one who tells the truth; the one undocumented and unknown is the chief witness; the one threatened with death and even dying is revealed to be alive and well; the one who seems to be in sorrow is lifted up with joy; the one who seems to have nothing is able to provide everything. And, as the Gospel reminds us, the one asleep in the stern of the boat is able to quell the storm and quiet even the winds and the sea.
And all of this is from the power of love, not envy — from the force that builds up and restores. Love opens doors and breaches the barricades that envy builds around a bitter heart. We will hear more of Saul and Jonathan and David in next weeks’ Scriptures — the story ends sadly for all three of them, and David laments the loss — and yet he continues to become a great king; not perfect, by any means — and we’ll hear about that as well — but one devoted to God even when he fails in how he treats others, even when he himself gives in to the envious desire to have what another possesses; even when he stoops to a criminal act worthy of punishment.
But for now, we have the image of young David — this teenager fresh from victory over Goliath, clothed in the garments of another young soldier — one who loves him as he loves his own soul — envied by Saul yet adored by the people. We have the image of the Apostle, shaming the haughtiness and closed hearts of the Corinthians by his own humility and the open-handed offer of forgiveness and love. And we have the image of our Lord himself, one who will also suffer attacks by the envious, but who will triumph in the end, as surely he triumphs over sea and wind, calming the storm and strife — not with a shout — but with a gentle word of peace.
And I will add one more sign of love’s victory over envy that we saw enacted this week, when another young man stood in blank confusion before the families of those he had so heartlessly slaughtered, and those daughters and sons, and sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers, did not heap curses on his head, as he may have expected and deserved, but poured out a tsunami of forgiveness — a force and a power I can only hope may rend his heart in shame and bring him to repentance.
For the power of envy may stir up, but the power of love will conquer all. Even that dark force of envy itself and all the other evils that beset us, will, in the end, be calmed and quieted, and all our fears relieved; when we too place our trust in the love of God. Even if we do not see him, even if we fear he is asleep in the stern, he is the one who keeps us safe in the storm and the strife through the night; and it is to him, as is most justly due, that we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.