Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is It Lawful On the Sabbath To Do Good Or To Do Evil? To Save Life Or To Destroy It?

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Reading I                1 Samuel  17:32-33, 37, 40-51

David spoke to Saul:
“Let your majesty not lose courage.
I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine.”
But Saul answered David,
“You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him,
for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth.”

David continued:
“The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear,
will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine.”
Saul answered David, “Go! the LORD will be with you.”

Then, staff in hand, David selected five smooth stones from the wadi
and put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag.
With his sling also ready to hand, he approached the Philistine.

With his shield bearer marching before him,
the Philistine also advanced closer and closer to David.
When he had sized David up,
and seen that he was youthful, and ruddy, and handsome in appearance,
the Philistine held David in contempt.
The Philistine said to David,
“Am I a dog that you come against me with a staff?”
Then the Philistine cursed David by his gods
and said to him, “Come here to me,
and I will leave your flesh for the birds of the air
and the beasts of the field.”

David answered him:
“You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar,
but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts,
the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted.
Today the LORD shall deliver you into my hand;
I will strike you down and cut off your head.
This very day I will leave your corpse
and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air
and the beasts of the field;
thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.
All this multitude, too,
shall learn that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves.
For the battle is the LORD’s and he shall deliver you into our hands.”

The Philistine then moved to meet David at close quarters,
while David ran quickly toward the battle line
in the direction of the Philistine.
David put his hand into the bag and took out a stone,
hurled it with the sling,
and struck the Philistine on the forehead.
The stone embedded itself in his brow,
and he fell prostrate on the ground.
Thus David overcame the Philistine with sling and stone;
he struck the Philistine mortally, and did it without a sword.
Then David ran and stood over him;
with the Philistine’s own sword which he drew from its sheath
he dispatched him and cut off his head.

Today we read part of the famous story of David and Goliath. Today’s reading goes back to another source for the story of David. In this story, David has not yet been anointed king. Rather, today’s exploit will be one of the factors leading to his being chosen as both successor and replacement for Saul.

Earlier on (not in today’s reading) we are told of the awesome sight of the fully-armed Goliath, a giant of a man who was the champion of the Philistines. Day after day he challenged the Israelites to send out one of their men to take him on in single combat. There were no takers.

It was about this time that Jesse sent his youngest son David to the battlefield to bring food to some of his older brothers who were with the army. David himself is still too young to fight and is a shepherd at home. It is while he is with the army that he sees Goliath come to taunt the soldiers of Israel and they are all too afraid to take him on.

It is then - the beginning of today’s reading - that David approaches Saul and offers to challenge Goliath. “Let your majesty not lose courage. I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine.” Saul, who at this time does not actually know David, is very much against a young boy taking on Goliath. “You are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth.” But Saul does not take into account the power of Yahweh who will be on David’s side against the infidel.

David’s confidence is in the Lord. This will be an essential qualification for a king who will rule in God’s name, a qualification which stands in strong contrast to Saul’s loss of faith. David, too, appeals to his experience as a shepherd where God had protected him from predatory lions and bears attacking his sheep. “Go then,” says Saul. After all, David is the only one at least willing take on the giant, even if the odds seem overwhelming against him.

And so, with Saul’s blessing, David goes forth. In his hand he bore his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his coming role as shepherd and protector of God’s people. He picked some suitable stones from a nearby wadi. These stones were usually round and smooth and somewhat larger than a baseball or cricket ball. When thrown by a master slinger, they could travel at more than 100 miles an hour.

The Benjaminites - and David belonged to the tribe of Benjamin - were famous for their skill with the sling. In Judges we read that an army of Benjaminites included “seven hundred picked men who were left-handed, every one of them able to sling a stone at a hair without missing” (Judges 20:16). David was perhaps more formidable than he looked.

Goliath came to meet him with his shield bearer and armed with a sword, spear and scimitar. He mocked when he saw the young, handsome and virtually unarmed boy coming out to challenge him. (Earlier Saul had offered his armour to David but it was so heavy he could not walk in it!) Goliath is almost insulted to be facing a mere boy. “Am I a dog that you come against me with a staff?” he mocked. To be regarded as a dog was one of the lowest forms of debasement. We remember Jesus asking the Syro-phoenician woman whether it was right to give the children’s food to dogs, an insulting term used for Gentiles, who like scavenging dogs, made no distinction between food that was clean and unclean. He then curses David and his ‘gods’. To the polytheistic Philistine, the Israelites, like him, believed in many gods. He threatens to leave David as food for carrion birds and other wild animals wandering the desert.

But David is not cowed. Goliath comes against him armed to the teeth but, he says, “I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel which you have insulted.” To insult God’s people is to insult God himself. “It is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves.” David’s reliance is totally on his Lord. And it will not be David who will be feeding the birds and animals but Goliath, giving proof that Israel has an all-powerful God. And this battle is not David’s or the Israelites’ but God’s.

The two protagonists then approach each other. Before he knew what had happened David had armed his sling with a stone, aimed skilfully and struck the giant in the centre of his forehead. Goliath fell to the ground. David then drew the giant’s sword from its sheath and beheaded him.

The upshot was that the Philistines were thrown into confusion and fled with the Israelites in pursuit. The day was a great victory for Israel and it was the beginning of David’s rise as leader of his people.

The story proves not so much the courage and skill of David but the protection of God who was choosing him to be the leader of his people. It was a dramatic message to Israelites and Philistines alike. It can happen to us too that we find ourselves capable of taking on challenges which we believed were well beyond us.

Let us remember the words of Paul, “I can do everything in Him who gives me strength” and “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

+++    +++    +++    +++   
Responsorial           Psalm 144

Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
Blessed be the LORD, my rock,
who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
My refuge and my fortress,
my stronghold, my deliverer,
My shield, in whom I trust,
who subdues my people under me.
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
O God, I will sing a new song to you;
with a ten-stringed lyre I will chant your praise,
You who give victory to kings,
and deliver David, your servant from the evil sword.
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
+++    +++    +++    +++   

Gospel                  Mark 3:1-6
Jesus entered the synagogue.
There was a man there who had a withered hand.
They watched Jesus closely
to see if he would cure him on the sabbath
so that they might accuse him.

He said to the man with the withered hand,
“Come up here before us.”
Then he said to the Pharisees,
“Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?”
But they remained silent.

Looking around at them with anger
and grieved at their hardness of heart,
Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel
with the Herodians against him to put him to death.
Once again we see Jesus in confrontation with the religious leaders. It follows the same pattern as before between him and his critics, here simply referred to as “they”. It is quite clear who “they” are.
The scene is in the local synagogue. Once again “they” were looking for evidence with which to convict Jesus. They were watching to see if Jesus would cure a man with a withered hand on a sabbath day. There is every likelihood that the man was “planted” in what we might call a “set up”. To use a sick person in this way was really despicable.

There is no doubt that Jesus is fully aware of what is happening. Unhesitatingly, he tells the man to come out and stand in the middle of the assembly. Then he puts his question: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

His opponents are reduced to silence. They have neither the honesty nor the integrity to give the obvious answer to the question.

In another example of how Jesus shows his feelings, we are told that he was both grieved and angry at their stubborn attitude. Grieved because their attitude was so inappropriate for people who believed they were close to God. Angry because of the terrible injustice they were prepared to impose on this man. In their book, no suffering justified breaking the Law. But for Jesus it is not a matter of keeping or breaking laws but of doing good.

He tells the man to stretch out his withered arm and it is completely cured. The Pharisees - humiliated - immediately went out and began to plot with the Herodians to get rid of Jesus. The Pharisees needed the help of the Herodians, who were supporters of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, if they were to take action against Jesus. This strange alliance shows the extent of the Pharisees’ anger and blinding hatred. The Herodians represented everything the Pharisees despised.

The story once again highlights the difference between morality and law. It was against the Law to do healing work on the sabbath (and even in our society doctors do not normally work on Sundays). This was because, in normal circumstances, the attention of a doctor might involve extensive treatment. But here the healing is done in a moment. Can it be called work? Can it be seen as a violation of the spirit of the sabbath?

In this particular case, where the situation was chronic and causing no immediate distress to the man, it is worth noting that the healing could easily have taken place on another day. But Jesus uttered a principle that transcends all positive law: It is always justified to go what is good, provided no greater good is denied. Similarly, no truly loving act can ever be sinful even though it may violate a law. All laws, except for the law of love, are relative.

The Law about healing on the sabbath had good intentions and was part of the observance of the Lord’s day but it was being absolutised by the Pharisees. It is a tendency in our Christian life which we must also avoid. Even the law about being at Mass on Sunday can be absolutised. Sometimes there are pressing needs e.g. the care of a sick person or a child which can override the law about Sunday Mass.

Christianity is about loving relationships not about conformity to laws. “If I have not love, I am nothing” says St Paul.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

A withered hand is easier to cure than a withered heart.