People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, 1 Samuel 17:32-33, 37, 40-51
32 David said to Saul, ‘Let no one be discouraged on his account; your servant will go and fight this Philistine.’
33 Saul said to David, ‘You cannot go and fight the Philistine; you are only a boy and he has been a warrior since his youth.’
37 ‘The Lord,’ David went on, ‘who delivered me from the claws of lion and bear, will deliver me from the clutches of this Philistine.’ Then Saul said to David, ‘Go, and the Lord be with you!’
40 He took his stick in his hand, selected five smooth stones from the river bed and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in his pouch; then, sling in hand, he walked towards the Philistine.
41 The Philistine, preceded by his shield-bearer, came nearer and nearer to David.
42 When the Philistine looked David up and down, what he saw filled him with scorn, because David was only a lad, with ruddy cheeks and an attractive appearance.
43 The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog for you to come after me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
44 The Philistine said to David, ‘Come over here and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the wild beasts!’
45 David retorted to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword, spear and scimitar, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, God of the armies of Israel, whom you have challenged.
46 Today, the Lord will deliver you into my hand; I shall kill you, I shall cut off your head; today, I shall give your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the wild beasts, so that the whole world may know that there is a God in Israel,
47 and this whole assembly know that the Lord does not give victory by means of sword and spear — for Yahweh is lord of the battle and he will deliver you into our power.’
48 No sooner had the Philistine started forward to confront David than David darted out of the lines and ran to meet the Philistine.
49 Putting his hand in his bag, he took out a stone, slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead; the stone penetrated his forehead and he fell face downwards on the ground.
50 Thus David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; he hit the Philistine and killed him, though he had no sword in his hand.
51 David ran and stood over the Philistine, seized his sword, pulled it from the scabbard, despatched him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
Gospel, Mark 3:1-6
1 Another time he went into the synagogue, and there was a man present whose hand was withered.
2 And they were watching him to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath day, hoping for something to charge him with.
3 He said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Get up and stand in the middle!’
4 Then he said to them, ‘Is it permitted on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to kill?’ But they said nothing.
5 Then he looked angrily round at them, grieved to find them so obstinate, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored.
6 The Pharisees went out and began at once to plot with the Herodians against him, discussing how to destroy him.
A military man I knew once said to me, “Of course, when you get to know David, you realise Goliath hadn’t a chance!”
David was always good a calculating the real odds: he knew Goliath was a dinosaur who could only survive in a world where you didn’t do the simple deadly thing, because of the rules of heroic combat. His confidence in God comes from his belief that God has chosen the right man for the job: himself. The narrators of David’s life, working a long time afterwards, are still touched by his glamour, an odd combination of ability, self-confidence, courage, and blessedness.
If we lift the veil of piety we can also ascribe these qualities to Jesus, especially as Mark depicts him. He has the gift of healing, which is not marvellous in itself. It is marvellous that he employs it for the needy without cost, out of compassion. His courage and mastery of the situation are too much for his opponents, who are not used to being challenged openly. Jesus asks he crowd to approve his theology: is it permitted to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil?” Game over. The Pharisees are too used to winning victories by virtue of their fearsome reputation. They haven’t a chance against this kind of skill, although in the long-term their power will count. That’s where we can note the difference between David and Jesus. The latter is heading into suffering rather than triumph, and he is motivated by compassion rather than ambition.
But virtue allied to ability-perhaps the Christian tradition has closed its eyes to the glamour of goodness?