Monday, February 1, 2010

Perhaps The LORD Will Look Upon My Affliction.

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Reading I
2 Samuel 15:13-14, 30; 16:5-13
An informant came to David with the report,
“The children of Israel have transferred their loyalty to Absalom.”
At this, David said to all his servants
who were with him in Jerusalem:
“Up! Let us take flight, or none of us will escape from Absalom.
Leave quickly, lest he hurry and overtake us,
then visit disaster upon us and put the city to the sword.”

As David went up the Mount of Olives, he wept without ceasing.
His head was covered, and he was walking barefoot.
All those who were with him also had their heads covered
and were weeping as they went.

As David was approaching Bahurim,
a man named Shimei, the son of Gera
of the same clan as Saul’s family,
was coming out of the place, cursing as he came.
He threw stones at David and at all the king’s officers,
even though all the soldiers, including the royal guard,
were on David’s right and on his left.
Shimei was saying as he cursed:
“Away, away, you murderous and wicked man!
The LORD has requited you for all the bloodshed in the family of Saul,
in whose stead you became king,
and the LORD has given over the kingdom to your son Absalom.
And now you suffer ruin because you are a murderer.”
Abishai, son of Zeruiah, said to the king:
“Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?
Let me go over, please, and lop off his head.”
But the king replied: “What business is it of mine or of yours,
sons of Zeruiah, that he curses?
Suppose the LORD has told him to curse David
who then will dare to say, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
Then the king said to Abishai and to all his servants:
“If my own son, who came forth from my loins, is seeking my life,
how much more might this Benjaminite do so?
Let him alone and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to.
Perhaps the LORD will look upon my affliction
and make it up to me with benefits
for the curses he is uttering this day.”
David and his men continued on the road,
while Shimei kept abreast of them on the hillside,
all the while cursing and throwing stones and dirt as he went.
Today’s First Reading from the Second Book of Samuel shows the humility of David and it has much to say to us.

First, David is told that his son, Absalom, has rebelled against him and is acting as king. David, realizing that Absalom has won over the majority, decides to flee from Jerusalem. He did not want to fall into the hands of his son and have a bloodbath in the city. At the same time, he did not altogether despair of the situation because he had left supporters behind. He sent Zadok the priest and Abiathar with the Ark back to the city. He also left ten of his concubines there. But, as he was caught between rebels from both the north and south parts of the kingdom, he decided to make a strategic withdrawal (cf. 2 Sam 15:27 and 34ff).

But he was brokenhearted over the turn of events. As he went up the Mount of Olives (clearly he had not gone far from the city), he wept constantly, with his head covered and walking barefoot as did his followers. This was the usual mourning ritual but came to be used as a sign of deep sorrow in general.

A little later, as David was approaching Bahurim, which was on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, he was approached by a man who started cursing the king. The man’s name was Shimei, son of a man called Gera and from the same clan as Saul. He also began throwing stones at David and at the royal guards, who were on either side of him.

“Away, away, you murderous and wicked man!” he shouted at the king. The term he used was Belial, a name used for Satan and hence the personification of evil and lawlessness (Paul uses the term in 2 Corinthians 6:15). He called out to David, saying that David was only suffering the consequences of his actions, especially his bloodshed against the family of Saul.

We are told later on that David agreed to avenge the sufferings of the Gibeonites at the hands of Saul by delivering into their hands seven of Saul’s sons, who were dismembered and killed. Because of a promise, the son of Jonathan was spared (cf. 2 Sam 21:1-14). For all his humanity and sensitivity, David was a product of his era.

In addition, said Shimei, David had lost his kingdom to his son Absalom. "Now you suffer ruin because you are a murderer." The story of Uriah and Bathsheba was also public knowledge.

Naturally, David’s followers were all for killing the man who spoke in such an insulting way to their king. “Why should this dead dog curse my lord and king?” says Abishai. “Let me go over and take his head off.” In that culture, one could hardly use a worse insult than call a living person a “dead dog”.

David, however, wondered if the man was only doing the Lord’s bidding. If Absalom, his own son, could turn against him, why not a man of Saul’s family? “Perhaps the Lord will look upon my affliction and make it up to me with benefits for the curses he is uttering this day,” he told his followers.

David and his followers continued on their journey but Shimei went on taunting them by cursing and throwing stones and dirt.

(To round off the full story, sometime later, Shimei approached David and apologized profusely for what he did that day in cursing the king. Although Abishai was for killing him, David held his hand and made an oath to protect Shimei. However, when giving his final instructions on his death-bed, David said Shimei should not go unpunished for what he did but he left the form of punishment to his successors [see 2 Samuel 19:18-23 and 1 Kings 2:8-9]).

It would have been so easy for David, using his kingly prerogative, to wipe out the man who cursed him. In a similar situation, how would we have acted? How do we feel when people speak critically or abusively of us?

In this story we have here a very good example of turning the other cheek (very rare in the Old Testament – not to mention in contemporary life!).

Striking back does not protect our dignity but rather reveals our insecurity. When people say bad things about us, either they are true or they are false. If they are true, nothing new is being said. If they are false, we can ignore them.

Of course, there may be situations where, for serious reasons, we might have to defend our reputation. I might lose my job because of false accusations or I might even find myself unjustly being charged with a crime.

But much of the time, our reaction is an indication of our touchiness and an inner sense that we really deserve even more than is being said. So we go on the defensive.

Apart from David’s example, we can look at Jesus, especially during his trial. He met his accusers with a dignified silence. In doing so, he towers over them in dignity and strength.

+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 3
Lord, rise up and save me.
O LORD, how many are my adversaries!
Many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”
Lord, rise up and save me.
But you, O LORD, are my shield;
my glory, you lift up my head!
When I call out to the LORD,
he answers me from his holy mountain.
Lord, rise up and save me.
When I lie down in sleep,
I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.
I fear not the myriads of people
arrayed against me on every side.
Lord, rise up and save me.
+++    +++    +++    +++  

Mark 5:1-20
Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea,
to the territory of the Gerasenes.
When he got out of the boat,
at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.
The man had been dwelling among the tombs,
and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain.
In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains,
but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed,
and no one was strong enough to subdue him.
Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsides
he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.
Catching sight of Jesus from a distance,
he ran up and prostrated himself before him,
crying out in a loud voice,
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?
I adjure you by God, do not torment me!”
(He had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”)
He asked him, “What is your name?”
He replied, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.”
And he pleaded earnestly with him
not to drive them away from that territory.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside.
And they pleaded with him,
“Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.”
And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine.
The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea,
where they were drowned.
The swineherds ran away and reported the incident in the town
and throughout the countryside.
And people came out to see what had happened.
As they approached Jesus,
they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion,
sitting there clothed and in his right mind.
And they were seized with fear.
Those who witnessed the incident explained to them what had happened
to the possessed man and to the swine.
Then they began to beg him to leave their district.
As he was getting into the boat,
the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.
But Jesus would not permit him but told him instead,
“Go home to your family and announce to them
all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”
Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis
what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.

Today we see Mark at his best, telling a story full of drama and excitement. Compare the very bland version in Matthew (where, for some reason, there are two men.) It takes place in the “country of the Gerasenes” which was Gentile territory.

There was a man who was possessed by several demons (“My name is Legion for there are many of us.”) He was absolutely uncontrollable, could smash through chains and lived in isolated places, an outcast and a source of fear to people everywhere.

But when Jesus appears, it is the demons’ turn to fear. They begged not to be sent out of that district. (As Gentile territory was it fertile ground for their activities, a demonic paradise.) They offer a deal. They ask to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs. The presence of pigs is another indication that this was Gentile territory. Their request is granted. Once possessed, the pigs, 2,000 of them, went berserk and hurtled down a cliff into the lake and were drowned.

To the thinking of many today, this seems like a terrible waste of good pigs. How could Jesus do such a thing? But we need to remember that this was written in a Jewish context where pigs were regarded as unclean and to be avoided at all costs. We remember how the Prodigal Son was condemned in his hunger to get a job tending pigs and even to eating their food. For a Jew, this was the very lowest any human could go in terms of humiliation and degradation. So getting rid of these pigs was no big deal -- a case of good riddance. A better place to put evil spirits could not be imagined!

On the other hand, the swineherds were naturally upset at losing their means of livelihood and went back to the towns to announce what had happened. The people came out to see this extraordinary happening. They found Jesus and the man, perfectly composed and fully dressed. And they were afraid. Naturally, they realized that, in Jesus, they were in the presence of Someone very special who had such powers. They were also very upset that their herds of pigs had been destroyed and, not surprisingly, they begged Jesus to go elsewhere.

The man, however, asked to follow Jesus. Jesus’ response is interesting. He said to the man, “Go home to your people and tell them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you.” This was, in fact, another kind of following. And is a message each of us can hear.

Some of us think that following Jesus means spending a lot of time “with Jesus” in religious activities or joining the priesthood or religious life. For most of us, our calling and our following of Jesus takes place right where we are. It is there that we need to share with others our experience of knowing and being loved by Jesus. Let us go home and tell others what Jesus means in our lives. And, like the people in the Gospel, they may be amazed.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

What were the swineherds doing allowing their animals to root around among the tombs? The pigs could hardly avoid feeding on the bodies of the dead and becoming a vector for human disease. Maybe the madman was suffering from a horrible cannibalism-related brain disease, like kourou! The best thing for the local population was what in fact happened: the removal of those pigs from the human food chain!

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, your question is a very good one, one I heard for the first time many years ago from a bright student at St. Joseph's High School in North Adams. (I'm going to call her Martha, because that's her name.) The answer - which I had to look up at the time - is that, in that era, the vegetation growing in and near cemeteries was more nutritious than vegetation in other fields. --"Why, Father?" -- "The earth was more fertile." -- "Why was the earth more fertile, Father?" --Because in those days long ago, they didn't use concrete vaults, and all sorts of rich minerals leached out into the soil, and made it quite fertile."
--- I'm not going to repeat the entire classroom discussion here, but I must close by reminding you, as I did my friends at St. Joseph's, that the Hebrew shepherds never allowed their flocks to graze in cemeteries, which were "off limits" according to the Mosaic Law. But those restrictions did not apply to Gentile swineherds.