The Big Debate
Last Monday Night the world watched the big debate. Everyone knew the path to victory for both sides. Could Donald keep his cool? Could Hillary get under his skin? Well we found out the answer. He could hold it together for about a half hour but after that the old patterns re-emerged and he did the kinds of things that turn people off and make his poll numbers go down.
Now you might imagine that it would be rational to say “hey look, you’ve got a chance at being president of the United States, could you possibly keep your cool, don’t interrupt her, don’t take the bait and check your ego for 90 minutes? Is that too much to ask?
Apparently it is, but why?
The Sermon on the Mount
If you ask people if the Sermon on the Mount is a great text people will say yes but I often wonder if they actually know what is in it. Try this.
Matthew 5:38–48 (NIV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now I’m not going to tell you that this is a magical mandate that will suddenly turn your enemies into friends, or that you must do this in every circumstance but I will tell you that what Jesus commands here is completely unnatural. There are deep and important reasons why this is so hard.
People love to look to the natural for guidance about what is good or right or what they should do. An interesting piece in the Atlantic this week asked the question about violence by looking at nature. Their results? Violence is utterly natural. Does this surprise you?
This world has conditioned us to respond to threats, whether physical or verbal with defensiveness, anger and sometimes even violence.
Anger and Vindication
One of the funny things about this dynamic is the feelings that come along with it. When we are angry, or afraid of a threat, our internal moral compass strongly tells us “you are justified in your angry, aggressive response to this threat…” This is actually a rather vital emotional reaction because what it does is allow us to do what we feel in the moment needs to be done without having to feel guilty about it. Our fight or flight mechanism moves us to respond in the moment for self-preservation. Part of our difficulty, as the debates illustrate with this, is that we are not running around naked and afraid with stone spears fearing lions, tigers and bears. Donald Trump’s fight or flight mechanism is actually defeating the much more subtle and complex goal of appearing mature, in command of himself, and able to navigate complex relationships in order to achieve the outcome he desires. What got Donald into hot water, and what could very well cost him the election is that he takes his cues from the animal kingdom instead of from Jesus.
Growing Up David
As we’ve been reading through 1 Samuel we’ve been watching David grow up. God has been with him in both when circumstances were good, like when he was victorious over Goliath, and when times were bad, fleeing from Saul, living in the wilderness, being the leader of Saul’s basket of deplorables. The challenges for David have at each level grown more and more difficult. He’s having to lead people, and not easy people to lead. He’s often not only trying to save his own skin from murderous Saul, but now he’s responsible for 600 men and possibly just as many women and children. He’s trying to keep this group together, fed, safe, and all while fleeing Saul and living in out of the way places.
To make this more complicated he is often seen in the desert by the people who already live in the wilderness as an intruder and every time he moves those people run to Saul to tell him where they are so Saul comes with his army to kill them all. If anyone has reason to be angry and afraid it is David.
The Literary Artistry of the Book of Samuel
What follows in the story is three chapters that are designed to make a point very clearly about the whole conflict between Saul and David, but they do it in a way that highlights not only what’s happening in the story but the deeper issues in play. In this little chart you can see that the author is highlighting the heart of the issue by telling three stories together. The stories are told in such a way that we don’t assume that 26 is a repeat of 24, but rather that David is being tested in a foundational way, a way he must survive if he will continue to be used by God to work in his project of reconciling heaven and earth.
In chapters 24 and 26 David seems to be delivered a golden opportunity to, by his own hand, fulfill the anointing of Samuel and secure his safety and future for himself. He is encouraged on by his lieutenants but in both cases David refuses to lay his hand on “the Lord’s anointed”. In each case Saul blesses him but we know that Saul’s heart, like Pharaoh’s heart, will turn back and he will hunt David once more.
In the middle is a strange story of David and another situation. The names of the story lead some to imagine it is sort of a parable. There are verbal allusions that tie this story to the larger story making the issues in the story clear.
- Does David always interpret circumstances in ways to justify his own preferred outcomes? This is something like violating the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain.
- Does David doubt that God can Himself achieve what he has promised? Does David believe that “God needs some help”?
- Is David willing to trust God with his life and with the lives of those he trusts?
- Is David essentially a religious opportunist, like Saul has become, using God as a tool to achieve what David desires?
- Is David willing to obey God’s command that “vengeance is mine says the Lord”?
- Can David respect the Lord’s anointed even when the anointed isn’t following the Lord? Can David respect God’s monarchy even if the man sitting on the throne is in rebellion against God Himself?
Nabal Crosses David and David Looks to do the Natural Thing
So Nabal crosses David and David has had it. He straps on his sword and makes a hasty vow that He’s going to wipe Nabal off the face of the earth.
Nabal’s good wife Abigail catches word from the servants about what is going on, about the injustice done to David and about the likely outcome. She mirrors David by quickly accumulating food to do right by David in hopes of stopping David from slaughtering Nabal’s household.
The story is told in such a way to accentuate the fact that David is about place himself in trouble with God. He is about to incur “blood-guilt”. While Nabal has insulted David, Nabal has not shed blood and so the response of David would be unjust and disproportionate, thus making David liable to the justice of God against him.
Abigail swoops in bearing gifts and keeps David from blood-guilt.
David, now with his anger cooled comes to his senses and realizes that he was about to do a terrible thing, and if not for the intercession of this woman would have been guilty of murder and would have taken his first steps for himself of going down the road of becoming Saul.
In the end of the story when Nabal hears how his own wife has acted on his behalf, yet against his foolishness (similar to Jonathan and Michal) he becomes empty and like a story. The LORD has acted on David’s behalf and Nabal dies. David then sends messengers to see if Abigail will become his wife and she agrees.
Abigail’s actions have not only saved David, but set David up for further blessings down the road by enlarging his household and giving him a beautiful and wise wife. The story has a happy ending.
Even while chapter 26 reminds us that out in the bigger world the good news has not yet come, what we have in chapter 25 is a gospel story already with the beginnings of reward.
It is important to not diminish or skip over both the natural state of our character and the state of this world.
- We naturally default to animal defensiveness because in this world we are threatened and sometimes need to defend ourselves.
- Our natural animal defensiveness itself leads us astray, setting us up to be angry, vindictive and malicious often acting disproportionate in order to try to secure for ourselves status, money and security. See the boast of Lamech.
- Not only do these desires turn this world into the jungle that it is but makes us enemies of God.
- Jesus’ command to us not only appears unreasonable but is often impossible for us to fulfill.
If would be nice for us to hear that David had the wear-with-all to stop himself from slaughtering Nabal and his household. The story clearly intends to show us that David needed an intercessor, to meet him with gifts. The question of whether Abigail owed David the food she brought him is ambiguous. There was no contract between David and Nabal that Nabal failed to fulfill. David’s men were probably freelancing in a way to see if they might get something by protecting Nabal’s servants at sheering time.
A modern psychologist might call David’s anger against Nabal transference. David was angry with Saul but by virtue of the situation was restricted by God to act out his anger, so Nabal becomes the target of opportunity. David is ready to throw everything away but God, through Abigail saves David.
This isn’t the first time that God intervenes by sending in a woman to rescue his plan. The book of Samuel begins with barren Hannah and her prayer when none of the man will do right. David’s great grandmother Ruth rescues Israel. Now we have Abigail.
Abigail, at the risk of her life brings gifts to David who would be her enemy, who would have destroyed her household. She offers David gifts he in that moment did not deserve and saves David from himself.
Abigail is a Christ figure, because while we were still enemies of God, Christ comes bearing gifts and in that moment invites us to lay down the sword of vengeance, to trust in God’s justice, not the justice of our own glandularly driven hand, and rest in His sufficiency.
Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount an invitation to become like him. It does not mean that you must keep getting hit or there is no time or place to defend yourself or defend the weak. It does not mean that you must give to everyone who asks of you, Jesus didn’t. It does shine light on the unnatural path that Jesus invites us onto. It is his path because it is exactly the path he took for us, and because he took it for us he invites us onto it behind him.
He asks us to trust, and in that trust restrain ourselves, our tongues, our hands, our violence. He asks us to believe that in the midst of an unjust world he begins by giving us smaller gifts that point to greater gifts that will come when justice is finally done and mercy finally prevails. This is his path and he invites us to follow.
Someone who is paying attention will very quickly realize that this all only works if this whole package is true. That Jesus really IS Lord, and that he really did RISE from the dead, and that all authority in heaven and on earth HAS been given to him. If these things aren’t true then Christians are the sorriest victims in the world, voluntarily offering their cheeks to hitting and in the end believing in a false hope.
If he is who he says he is, then the death of Nabal and the married love of Abigail that David received are symbols of the life that is to come for those who put down the sword of personal retribution.
Christians can only turn the other cheek, or swallow the instinctive defensive comeback when their trust in Jesus is strong and their vision for the truth of his whole story, of cross and resurrection are vivid in their imaginations. They can only do what he says if they actually believe and live their lives reinforcing that belief.