Discipline actually means learning. In the Christian understanding, Lent is a season of spiritual discipline. It is not just about the lengthening of the days, but a time of discipline through “self-examination and repentance,” through “prayer, fasting, and self-denial,” and through “reading and meditation” upon the Word of God (BCP, p. 612). It has its counterparts in the other religions and philosophies of the world and at the heart of it are the important questions about self-understanding and self-awareness.
At the end of last week, we embarked on the beginning of a brief consideration of the story of David, one of the great and compelling narratives in the Hebrew Scriptures found mostly in 1st and 2nd Samuel. David is a kind of ‘everyman’; that is to say, that his story reveals something to us about ourselves. In a way, the story of David is like a mirror held up to us so that we may see the truth about ourselves and as a window through which we may see something of the wonder of God, of one another, and of creation. A mirror and a window. The story of David begins with him being anointed as king. The context is a question about how Israel as a community is to be governed. Will it be by the prophets? Or by a king?
Samuel is the prophet sent by God to anoint as king one of the sons of Jesse, the Bethlehemite. Seven of the sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel but in each case none of them are chosen. “The Lord sees,” Samuel is told, “not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It is that sensibility that goes to the heart of the story of David and speaks most profoundly to our image obsessed world of selfies and Instagram posts, twitter and Facebook. You are more than your selfie, more than the image you present or as others imagine, more than the flickering shadows of your devices. David, the youngest son, is out tending sheep. He is sent for and, behold, the Lord says, “this is he.”
In many ways, it is a question about character but not on any strength of our own. This week in Chapel, we heard the story of David and Goliath and the story of the friendship between David and Jonathan. When we come back from the March break, we will continue with the story of David which entails the sin of David and his repentance. The ‘hero’ is not without his faults and failings. David shows us, as the preacher and poet John Donne notes, “the slippery ways into sin but also the penitential ways out of sin.” Pretty powerful stuff, the stuff of education.
The story of David and Goliath is perhaps somewhat familiar even in our post-Christian world of diminished literacy. It is commonly treated as an image and metaphor for the underdog especially in the sports world; yet that is to misread the story almost completely and to read it in an entirely secular fashion. In the context of a struggle between the Philistines and the Israelites, the giant Goliath challenges the armies of the Lord. He is a giant figure, to be sure, but what is greater than his bulk and strength, we might say, is his ego and arrogance, his presumption and pretense. It is not really about the underdog taking on the top dog. It is more about a clash of principles. What defines you? The braggadocio of a Goliath beating his chest or the Lord God of all reality who sees into your heart? The story is not simply about the little guy who takes down the big guy. It is about the spirit of the Lord in the heart of David. He has a hold of something far greater than himself.
The story is not without its amusement, especially with David putting on the armour of Saul and then not being able to move! Instead, he takes up his sling along with five smooth stones. What moves him is at once a kind of courage born of his life as a shepherd protecting the sheep from bear and lion and of a confidence in the truth of God which Goliath has mocked and derided. David goes out against Goliath not “with spear, and sword and javelin” but, as he says, “in the name of the Lord of hosts.” He is armed from within. It is a contest of principles.
This is not unlike Homer’s Iliad which pitted the Achaeans against the Trojans, Greeks against the cultures of Asia Minor. The Greeks have given us the term ‘barbarians’ just as the Hebrews have given us the term ‘philistines’ both as references for what is uncivilised and uncultured; in short, undisciplined, unlearned. In the biblical story, and certainly this is not without a host of moral echoes down throughout the centuries, the mighty fall mightily especially in their pride and boastfulness. So too with Goliath. It is long ways from Goliath to Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant who learns to be caring, considerate, and compassionate; in short, unselfish and a friend to the little ones.
Others, like Malcolm Gladwell, have tried to re-interpret this story to suggest another kind of naturalistic explanation, albeit contrary to the underdog myth. Poor old Goliath had serious health problems, a diagnosis and a vulnerability, we might say, which David inadvertently exploited, but this too misses out on the key points of the dialogue and exchange which lies at the heart of the story. It is really a question of character, about what defines you inwardly and truly in the face of whatever challenges and obstacles that present themselves to you outwardly. How do we face the gargantuan challenges of our own world and day ranging from the Goliaths of the corporate world to the Goliaths of political regimes which seek to control us all, and from our complicity in such things? To what extent do we acquiesce to the Goliaths of our culture and world? To what extent do we surrender our own accountability and agency? To what extent do we then ignore the needs and concerns of one another in our indifference?
This is where the story of the friendship between David and Jonathan comes in. It is one of the great stories of literary friendship along with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, and many more. How can we have friendship with one another without friendship with God? He sees into our hearts and seeks to draw our hearts to him, come what may in the fears and worries of our world and day. Such things recall us to ourselves especially in the face of our uncertainties and worries. But there can only be friendship where there is honesty and openness. A sense of who we are inwardly frees us to act with care and compassion towards one another. My prayers for a good and restful ‘reading’ break for all of you. Take care and be careful, but not fearful.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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