Pentecost 5 (Proper 7/Ordinary 12): Year B

1 Samuel 17:32-49

The single combat between David and the Philistine giant Goliath has become proverbial for the “little guy” winning against a far better resourced and equipped opponent – in other words, against the kind of opposition who, under normal circumstances, would be expected to triumph. This is only reinforced by the way David and Goliath are portrayed: David as the humble yet confident “righteous person” who respectfully addresses the king, Saul, as “your servant”, but who also does not require the encumbering accoutrements of kingship, such as armour; and the Philistine champion Goliath, who not only has a shield-bearer to accompany him into battle, but who mocks David’s lowly appearance and apparently meagre weapons. This is a classic portrayal of the lowly “good guy” setting himself against the arrogant and powerful “bad guy”.

But beneath this apparently straight-forward encounter of good and evil lurk a number of currents of which we need to be aware of we are not to seriously misconstrue this narrative and its relevance to our circumstances today.

Firstly, we need to understand the cultural context. Scholars generally accept that David lived and reigned c.1000 BC. The significance of this is that it was a period sometimes known as the “heroic age”, in which individual warriors sought glory and honour by defeating opponents in battle. Indeed, it was sometimes the case that entire battles and territorial disputes were settled by two champions battling on behalf of their respective armies and states. You need only read Homer’s epic Iliad to see this in operation: although composed at a later date, it refers to events that occurred around about this time in eastern Mediterranean history; and one of its recurring themes is the rivalry between individual warriors of great standing and prestige. So the image of two warriors from the respective Philistine and Hebrew armies matching off as a prelude to – or even as the decider of – a major battle is entirely in keeping with the “heroic” culture of this period.

Secondly, we need to understand the political context of the narrative, which is tied to the cultural context. The Hebrews and Philistines were locked in a fierce rivalry for control of the lowland regions of what is now Israel-Palestine. The Hebrews inhabited the highlands of the interior, while the Philistines the coastal plain: between them stood the lowlands region with its lucrative trade routes to and from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Control of these trade routes was vital to control of the region as a whole. And as often happens in conflict, both sides portrayed themselves as the “legitimate” party fighting for a “just” cause, while the other side were the “illegitimate” party fighting for an “unjust” cause – and, we need only examine the way both sides in the present Israel-Palestine conflict propagandise their own position while demonising their opponents to see this in operation. The “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative in the story of David and Goliath is the propagandising of this encounter from the Hebrew perspective – no doubt, had a version of this encounter survived from the Philistine viewpoint, David would probably have been portrayed as cowardly trickster who won the battle by sleight of hand instead of honourably facing up to Goliath in direct combat.

Thirdly, we need to be aware of the military context. David is often portrayed as a mere boy going up against a seasoned warrior – but this image, if not naïve, is certainly captive to the propagandistic currents implicit in this tale’s political context. The text itself gives us an insight into some of the frightening realities of having to be a shepherd in this period: the reality that protecting precious flocks meant combating wild animals. And while it is true that David battling lions and bears is part of the propagandising portrayal of him as a “righteous hero”, nonetheless it also tells us that he was no stranger to what would ordinarily be frightening and dangerous situations. He was experienced in combatting creatures who, by any conventional standard, were larger, swifter, and more fierce than he. David was not the inexperienced innocent portrayed in the narrative.

Additionally, when we summarise the respective weapons utilised by the combatants – the armour, sword, and spears of Goliath, contra the sling and stones with which David was armed – we are invited by the text itself to think that David was hopelessly overmatched. But this is hugely misleading. Stone carvings which date to the period of the Assyrian empire show regiments of soldiers armed with slings firing stones at a besieged fortress. What these soldiers are doing is what today would be called “suppressing fire”: that is to say, they are keeping up a barrage of stones and lead “shots” that forced the defenders to take cover, and which thus prevented them from attacking the catapults and battering rams that are doing actual damage to the fortress walls. Indeed, these slingers were so valued by armies of the period, that entire regiments of slingers from Crete and the Balearic Islands were incorporated into the later Greek and Roman armies.

The upshot of all this is that, despite the initial impressions which the text invites us to take up, the reality is Goliath never stood a chance against David. David was always going to be able to pick off Goliath from a distance before Goliath was ever going to be able to bring his sword or his own missile weapons into play. From the moment David shrugged off Saul’s armour and took up his sling – a weapon with which he was not merely familiar but was also an expert practitioner – Goliath was a dead man walking.
So what does this tell us about the text? The first is that it is a piece of cultural-political theatre played out against the wider context of the competing military ambitions of the Hebrews and the Philistines. This reading is a propagandistic text that portrays David – and by extension, the cause of the Hebrew people – in not merely a positive light, but as one that is sanctioned and fore-ordained by God. As noted above, the Philistines more than likely had their own equivalent versions which portrayed their cause in precisely the same light. But the heroising of David and demonising of Goliath tell us what this narrative is really about: it is about asserting a justification for the Hebrew peoples in the face of competing claims asserted by other cultures and peoples. The story of David and Goliath is an ancient example wartime propaganda.

Beyond this, however, what this reading also points us to is the ease with which simplistic tales of “good versus evil” can co-opt our sympathies and draw us into acting against our own interests for the sake of powerful vested interests. Political nationalism, for example, likes to paint history in simplistic “black and white” terms that depict “us” as the “good guys” and “them” as the “bad guys”. And part of “us” being the “good guys” is identified by our “underdog” status – we are not only the put upon party, we are the weaker party, and it is by virtue of our righteousness and our being on the side of the angels that “we” have triumphed over “them”. Indeed, most countries have a “founding mythos” that complies with this formula, be it in the form of heroic explorers or mighty soldiers or enlightening missionaries – narratives that leave aside the inconvenient truths of destroyed indigenous cultures, or unjust political expediency, or enslaving military-social-cultural imperialism.

In the realm of work and economics, this narrative manifests itself in the idea that the prerogatives of narrow sectional interests – the owners of capital, for example, or the beneficiaries of certain economic ideologies – necessarily and inevitably align with the interests of wider society. A classic example of this process is the idea of the “trickle down effect”: that is, if society’s wealthy are given the freedom to become even wealthier – usually by “liberating” them from the need to comply with labour, consumer, and environmental protections laws – then a portion of that wealth will “of course” make its way to the rest of society. In other words, allow the wealthy to become wealthier and everyone will get a cut of the action. Moreover, anyone who argues to the contrary is “disruptive” or “regressive” or engaged in “envious class warfare”.

But as the spiralling inequality, environmental degradation, and mass exploitation of working people evidences, this simplistic proposition hides an ugly truth: increasing the wealth of the wealthy has served only to undermine the integrity, not only of society, but of the very ecology upon which our survival as a species is based. Moreover, the very victims of this system have been co-opted into supporting it through the elusive yet almost graspable dream of upward mobility, of unlimited material consumption, of being able to escape the alienation and “quiet despair” (to quote G K Chesterton) that is part-and-parcel of most people’s lives.

This isn’t to say there isn’t any such thing as an “underdog” – whether individual or communal – or that “underdogs” don’t sometimes overcome extraordinary odds on their way to hugely unlikely triumphs. But the trap of the story of the “underdog” lies in its very capacity to capture our sympathy, to tap into our own sense of being an “outsider” or someone who is “up against it”. It is its very capacity to elicit our support that enables the “underdog” narrative to recruit us to the cause of unjust causes, whether it’s political nationalism or economic exploitation. The story of David and Goliath is a cautionary tale about the capacity of hope and trust to be co-opted for destructive purpose; and a reminder of our own need for deep discernment when confronted with appealing narratives that place “us” on the side of the angels, and “them” on the side of demonic powers.

Psalm 9: 9-20

This Psalm is part articulation of hope and trust in God, part lamentation of presently-suffered travails, and part prayer for deliverance. In this sense, it follows a pattern evident in many Psalms, in which the Psalmist both expresses their confidence in God as well as their need for God’s activity – and, with that need, their feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness.

Of course, invocations to divinities in times of trouble are as old as humanity itself. In that respect, this Psalm is “nothing new”. Yet what is new – at least, from the standpoint of the ancient world’s cultic approach to the gods, and their perceived remoteness from human beings (and thus, need for appeasement/offering) – is the identification with humanity that is implicit in this Psalm. The God to whom the Psalmist appeals is not a remote deity indifferently enforcing law codes and cultural taboos: rather, this is a God who stands in solidarity with the suffering of the world.

The description of YHWH as a “stronghold” for the oppressed is not merely a passive attribution, as though God were a kind of existential fallout shelter and nothing more. Of course, critics of religion argue that this is precisely how religious people understand God; as a shelter from a world or a reality they otherwise lack the intestinal fortitude to face. But if we understand a stronghold in the military sense of the word, then God is understood by the Psalmist as a reality that interposes itself between suffering and the one who suffers; God suffers the blows and assaults of life that would otherwise fall on our heads.

In other words, God is not merely something behind which the fearful and the unreflective hide; rather, God is a reality who stands with us and suffers alongside us in the depths of our human brokenness. Moreover, this solidarity is not the well-wishing of convenience or self-promotion, and which then dissipates as soon as real difficulty arises; it is faithful solidarity the endures and does not forsake.

As such, the faithful solidarity of God is that which can turn evil power back upon itself. Not in the kind of triumphalistic, turning-of-tables way that a conventional “just desserts” understanding of “justice” articulates; but through the interplay of sequence and consequence, through what one does or fails to do, and the ramifications of these acts and omissions for ourselves as well as for others. Oppressive power is always ultimately self-destructive, as every authoritarian and exploitative regime and system of social organisation has discovered to its cost.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Psalmist seems to think God might be susceptible to the kind of emotional blackmail implicit in the tactic of mixing expressions of confidence with laments and pleas for action highlights the deeply human nature of this prayer. But it also opens another avenue for understanding the depth and degree to which God stands with us: the God to whom the Psalmist prays is not an idol demanding obsequies entreaties and offerings. Rather, the God of the Psalms is a dialogical God, one who allows us to speak to God out of the depths of our sorrows – passive-aggressiveness and attempts at manipulation notwithstanding! As occurs elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the one addressing God is also talking back to God, precisely because YHWH is a God who invites us into relationship and conversation.

Modernity’s construction of work and economics has produced a reality in which oppressive systems of control and exploitation seem not only inevitable but eternal. This is highlighted by the often inaccessible sources of these injustices: in the decisions made in remote boardrooms, or trading floors, or government departments that frequently seem barely there within day-to-day reality, but whose deliberations profoundly affect millions of lives every day. This remoteness itself induces a sense of unreality in those making the decisions: disconnected from the lives they might irretrievably overturn, human consequences seem less like concrete actualities than abstract factors not bearing on the central decision. And there’s no point appealing to the powers responsible; their ultimate rationalisation – economic “necessity” – will always serve as a buffer between them and their victims.

The world of work and economy seems like a “dog-eat-dog” nightmare of relentless competition that makes no allowances for human needs or frailties. But this blinds us to the fact that if we do not act in solidarity with the humanity of others – as well as with our own humanity – we will reap consequences unanticipated by the hubristic expectations of short-termism and expediency. Solidarity is not merely a feel-good term that enables us to virtue-signal our righteousness or political purity; it articulates a fundamental truth that goes to the core of what it means to be human. Without solidarity, without relationship¬ – between ourselves and God, and between each other – we are profoundly diminished, made lesser than what we might otherwise be.

Psalm 9 is a powerful reminder that the “solutions” to our “problems” do not come about through the kind of self-exercised agency which modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual would have us believe is the case. Rather, they occur when solidarity reminds us we are not alone, and that there are others to whom we can turn to for help, and with whom we can express our laments and desires. It reminds us that, unless our social, economic, and political institutions not only merely enable, but actually serve human solidarity, those institutions will be less than human – and we ourselves will be dehumanised by the very edifices we construct, the very injustices we perpetuate.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

The focus of Paul’s vision in the readings from Second Corinthians over the last two weeks has been on the eschatological horizon toward which Christians look, while also firmly locating the hope of that horizon in humanity’s present lived reality. In today’s reading, Paul focuses squarely on the here-and-now, declaring that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. In doing so, Paul eschews the kind of compartmentalisation that either focuses exclusively on God’s consummation of creation, or, equally exclusively, on the concerns of the present. Salvation is not an either/or for Paul, not a matter of either at some indeterminable point in time or only possible in the now; it is both/and – the Kingdom is coming, and the Kingdom is here at hand.

Paul illustrates this argument by declaring that God’s gift of grace has already been given to humankind in the person of Christ; we ought therefore to ensure that this gift is not received in vain and accordingly live our lives as recipients of this great giving. But this giving does not come to us in the form of a “miracle” that magically removes all the realities of our present brokenness, as Paul illustrates through the detailed list of his own suffering. Rather, the grace we are gifted through Christ enables us to be and embody the full humanity to which faith in God calls us, a fullness amid brokenness that images the ultimate restoration that is God’s purpose in creation. In other words, we are not passive recipients of grace, but are called to be active agents of its dissemination through human history; we are ¬co-workers with God in God’s work of salvation.

If we thus understand relationship with God as participation with God, we can likewise see the transformative potential of the Gospel for the world of work and economics. Modernity’s construction of labour (especially waged labour) and economy brings with it so many exploitative and dehumanising realities; but if the Gospel calls us to liberate human life from the sin of oppression and alienation as part of God’s work of redeeming creation, it follows that this liberation extends to work and economy as well. The Gospel message, especially as expressed in the parable of the vineyard owner who calls workers to the harvest at the latest possible hour and pays them all the same daily wage, breaks the commoditising effect of the exchange of cash for labour, and also overturns our assumptions about what work is for and directed toward. Seen from the perspective of the Gospel, work, as part of the sphere of human activity, must also be part of God’s activity; and economics must be the framework which orients human work toward co-activity with God.

This represents a fundamental challenge to conventional human understanding of work and economics; but it is the same challenge which Paul delivers to his Corinthian audience. The Gospel calls us, not to be passive recipients of grace, nor merely the holders of a privatised faith that convinces us of our own salvation. Likewise, this grace does not merely help us accept or work within or be successful through existing conventions and institutions. Rather, it calls us to see how every strata of human life is at one and the same time alienated from, and yet fundamentally oriented toward, God’s salvific purpose in creation. And, to the extent that such alienation is a reality in human life, and accounts for the brokenness of human socio-political-economic institutions, challenges us to begin the work of transformation that is itself part of God’s work of transforming the whole of creation.

Mark 4:35-41

A conventional understanding of this passage is that it is a kind of cautionary tale against a lack of faith, against the kind of fair-weather faith that can do without God quite nicely when things are going well, but which turns to God with much anguished hand-wringing when the chips are down. This is one of those ‘Oh ye of little faith!’ passages that remind us that all we need to do is believe hard enough and fervently enough and all will be well.

But this reading misses the fact that even after the miracle has been performed, the disciples are amazed and wonder who Jesus is, that even the elements of the natural world obey his commands. In other words, in waking Jesus up and declaring ‘do you not care that we are perishing?’, what the disciples are seeking is not a miracle but leadership, the solidarity of shared danger by one who can inspire confidence and guide them through the present danger. The fact that Jesus does respond with a miracle is emblematic of the abundance with which God responds to human need; an abundance that is reflected in the Incarnation itself.

But Jesus’ rebuke is directed at them precisely because of their assumption that God is not with them; that simply because their situation is desperate or even life-threatening, that God has somehow abandoned them. Put another way, they assume that God’s view of them is exactly the same as their view of God: an optional extra when things are fine, but a dire necessity who often seems absent when the tide of fortune runs against us. This is not about the disciples lacking faith; it is about them reducing God to human proportions.

In Jesus’ rebuke there is, however, a tragic irony: his cry from the Cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ is the lament of all those who feel abandoned in the face of injustice. This echoes the despair of the disciples at the moment they thought they were about to be swamped by the waves. Yet this irony also reveals the depths of God’s solidarity with humanity: God enters in full into our brokenness, even into the depths of despair and death.

The despair and alienation which many experience through suffering and injustice at work likewise stems from a sense of inevitability and abandonment. We are encultured into the view that modernity’s construction of waged labour and economic organisation are both inevitable and necessary: they are the way things should be. And with this encultured sense of inevitability comes an equally encultured sense of permanence; not only are things they way they ought to be, they will always be this way. And they will always be this way because it’s right and proper that they be this way. George Orwell’s dark vision of a dystopian future – of a boot stamping on a human face forever – is implicit in these encultured ‘understandings’.

This is the way things ought to be. This is the way things will be forever. And there is nothing you can do about it.

This narrative is the narrative of abandon hope all ye who enter here. It is a narrative that starkly divides the winners from the losers. The winners are those who can not only reconcile themselves to the system but flourish within it; the losers are those resigned to their helplessness within the system, or who are altogether crushed by it. This is a narrative which assumes the absence of God and humanity’s abandonment to the monsters of its own creation.

But today’s reading reminds us that God is always present in the affairs of the world, even when – or perhaps especially when – God seems most absent. For this sense of absence may itself be God calling to us to recalibrate our lives, to sense not only that things have gone wrong but to understand the potential for correction, for putting things back on their proper course. If God seems absent, it is perhaps not because God has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned God.

This is true also for the world of work and economics. The sense of alienation and abandonment many of us experience could be the very presence of God within these realities, alerting us to the fact that the response required is not a resignation to inevitability and unchangability, but a commitment to restore to fullness and abundance that which has been given up to sterility and injustice. The world of work and economy is, for many, a reality in which harm and despair flourish; but the Gospel calls us to realise it as the domain of God’s sanctifying presence, making new and healed all that has been despoiled and deformed.

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