Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fear of the Lord > Revenge

Homily: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Friends, in our first reading today, we’ve been given this tiny little snippet of a much greater story contained in the book of 1 Samuel.  The snippet conveys the message that the Church wants us to receive, but the it doesn’t convey the drama of the moment.  It’s a shame, because it’s a great dramatic moment and I think that we’d benefit from a more detailed telling of the story.  Without going back and reading the whole thing to you, let me try to put some “meat” on the “bones” of the story that we heard today.
          Saul was the first king of the Israelites.  The great judge and prophet, Samuel, was in his final days and his sons were men of very poor character: none of them really worthy to take up Samuel’s mantel.  So the people asked for a king, in spite of the warnings from God about the suffering a worldly king would create.  Samuel gave them their first king when he anointed Saul.  Saul was the king they expected at first: winning military victories and giving the Israelites a prominent name among the kingdoms of the Ancient Near East.  Saul disobeyed the Lord, however, by taking loot from a kingdom that he conquered and thus was doomed to suffer a slow series of defeats before being killed in battle, himself.
          It was during one of these defeats that David came into prominence.  The Philistines (the Israelites’ arch-enemy) were camped against the Israelites, prepared for battle.  They had an “ace”, however, in Goliath and so sent him out to battle the best soldier from the Israelite camp: one-on-one, winner takes all.  No Israelite soldier would step up, except David.  And we know this story: with one rock and a slingshot, David took down Goliath.  From then, David would be a head officer in Saul’s army, winning his own prominence that began to supersede Saul’s.
          Saul, became furiously jealous of David: eventually deciding that he had to kill him.  David went on the run and Saul (with his elite officers) pursued him doggedly.  David, with a small cohort of men who were loyal to him, managed to keep ahead of Saul and his army.  Enter today’s story.
          Here, David and his right-hand-man Abishai discover Saul’s camp one night.  David and Abishai sneak into the camp and somehow get all the way to Saul (the reading tells us that God was working for them, as he had put all of the army and king Saul into a “deep slumber” so that they wouldn’t wake up).  There, David has the opportunity to kill Saul outright... with Saul’s own spear, even!  Abishai, too, recognizes the import of the moment: “God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day!”, he says.  So excited is Abishai that he offers to do the deed himself.  David, however, thinks twice.
          You see, David was a man whom the Scriptures described as being “after God’s own heart”.  His first loyalty was to the Lord, the God of Israel.  David knew that Samuel, the great prophet of God, had anointed Saul king because God had chosen Saul.  Therefore, David knew that, without a clear message from God ordering him to do so, to kill king Saul would be a grave offense against God.  It’s almost as if David thought, “If God has chosen him, then God must decide his fate”.  And so, instead of taking the opportunity to kill king Saul, he simply stole Saul’s spear and water jug so as to prove that he had the opportunity to kill him and, thus, hopefully, to inspire Saul to end his pursuit of him.  We can acknowledge this as a very noble decision on David’s part, of course, but perhaps we should pause for just one moment to recognize what a truly difficult decision it was that David made.
          Imagine for a moment that you had to abandon your house and your livelihood because someone in power over you has decided that you should die.  You have a small band of friends around you, but day-in and day-out you are in hiding: constantly in fear of being discovered; and, having been discovered, of being killed.  Now imagine that, as you are running, you one day discover that you are in a position of advantage over this person who is pursuing you and you are handed a perfect opportunity to attack and completely neutralize this enemy: could you really resist attacking?  Imagine how angry you’ve been at your pursuer.  Imagine praying to God that this pursuit would end: perhaps even that he would give you a means to bring this pursuit to the end.  Now, there you are!  A perfect opportunity to end this pursuit and even exact revenge on this person who has ruined your life: with his own weapon, nonetheless!  Is it really going to be easy to do the “noble” thing and walk away with only the proof that you could have revenged that wrong?  Are you sure?
          Let me ask it this way: when you are slighted (offended) by a friend, family member, coworker, neighbor, your own spouse, even... by anyone, really... how easy is it to resist cutting that person down when you are “venting” to someone else?  Or do you not almost immediately begin to think about the opportunity you’ll have to destroy that person when talking to others later (or, worse yet, on social media)?  If you’re anything like me, it’s incredibly hard to do the noble thing and to keep my mouth shut, when all I want to do is lash out.  Often, that’s exactly what I do: I enact revenge on the one who hurt me as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
          David, as I said, was a “man after God’s own heart”.  He knew that God’s justice would serve him much better than any “vigilante justice” that he could enact.  He remembered, as our Psalm response reminds us today, that “the Lord is kind and merciful” and so he showed Saul mercy.  He also knew, as Jesus taught his disciples in today’s Gospel reading, that the “measure with which he measured would be measured out to him”; and so he showed Saul mercy, because he believed that one day he may need mercy shown to him.  (Sure enough, he would, one day, need God’s mercy and he would receive it.)
          Friends, our Scriptures are reminding us today to be cautious in our judgments... and especially cautious in our desire to revenge even the slightest wrongs that we suffer.  While we should work to build a just society wherein no one person or group of persons can act to oppress any others, we must also temper our desire for retribution: lest we ourselves one day suffer the same retribution for our sins.  If we have faith that God is the God of justice, and that no offense goes unnoticed by him, then we, too, must leave the ultimate judgement... and the ultimate punishment... up to God.
          Friends, open your bibles this week to the first book of Samuel, chapter 26, and read through this story of David and Saul once again.  Then reflect on where in your life that you could still put more trust in God’s judgment than your own.  Then pray the Lord’s prayer, especially focusing on the phrase, “forgive us today our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  In doing so, you will make yourself more open to living out the grace that we celebrate and receive in this Eucharist: God’s mercy given to us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 24th, 2019

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