19 – 20 February
Today’s first reading from the first book of Samuel recounts an incident from the life of King David. David (who had already been anointed king in his youth but had not yet assumed the crown) is being pursued by the reigning King Saul who, motivated apparently by jealously, is waging war against David and actually trying to kill him. In today’s episode Saul is sleeping in his camp with his army and David and his commander Abishai come across the King asleep. Abishai wants David to seize the opportunity kill Saul, avenge his aggressor and seize the kingdom, but David holds back on the grounds of respect for the dignity of Saul’s office and person: “who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed?” Our Mass lectionary sometimes abbreviates the scripture readings and today (in the case of this first reading) more than most, only giving a few verses of the second part of this episode. In it, David and his collaborators (first removing the spear and jar of water from the head of Saul as a sign of their presence) remove themselves to the top of a mountain within long-range earshot of Saul’s encampment and David shouts across the chasm first to Abner, Saul’s commander, and then he addresses Saul himself. Saul is deeply moved by this incident in which David has spared his life and acknowledges his fault in pursuing David: “I have done wrong … I will do you no more harm … I have played the fool and have erred exceedingly.”
The significance of this incident in moral terms is clear to us. If someone attempts to attack or undermine us, an easy (or sometimes almost automatic?) reaction is to respond like to for like, to meet aggression with aggression. Under the notion that attack is the best form of defence (whilst self-defence of course is itself legitimate) our emotions rather go beyond the mean to bring down retribution or even harm upon our enemy. David exemplifies a different spirit, one taught supremely by Our Lord in the Gospel: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” This is the perfection of charity which meets anger with peace, hatred with love, and sin with the act of reconciliation. St Paul refers to this elsewhere in the letter to the Romans: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals [a metaphor meaning the “coals of love”] upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21).
It is Our Lord again in the Gospel and St Paul also in today’s second reading that lead us into a deeper significance of this Old Testament event, a significance which reflects and points to the very of mystery of Redemption itself. The sin of Adam (that is, original sin) is an offence against God and puts man, as St Paul teaches, at “enmity” with God, makes man in a certain sense the “enemy” of God (cf. Romans 8:7). Though not all succumb to the worst temptations of sin, each has within himself what Paul calls “the law of sin” which battles against God and is “hostile to God” – the temptations to evil we each know so well (cf. Romans 7 esp. 13-25). God is the one who made us and who loves us, but sin leads us to reject him and cast him off, seeking our own pleasure and short-term satisfaction. This dynamic reaches a summit in the Passion of Jesus, when sin took this hostility to its ultimate conclusion and not only rejected and attacked but sought even to kill and murder the innocent lamb of God, to eradicate him from the face of the earth.
Here David enters as the symbol of the Redeemer. Saul, who unjustly plans his destruction, seeks to kill him but instead David approaches the aggressor and peaceably invokes God’s name over him. He takes the risk of loving his enemy, of doing good to the one who hates him. He is an image of the Son of God, born of the Virgin, “despised and rejected by men” as Isaiah says (Isaiah 53;3), but who does not bring retribution down upon sinful man, instead drawing close in love to the persecutor accepts the threat of death which hangs over him. The spear which David removes from the head of Saul represents the spear thrust into the side of Jesus at his passion, which he welcomes or even embraces; the water, that water and blood which burst forth from his side, the sign of God’s mercy to humanity. Jesus, then, is the “man of heaven” of which St Paul speaks in the second reading, because Jesus’ self-denying love (a love which seeks the good of the other, not of oneself) savours more of heaven than of earth, and calls down the grace of Redemption upon those very enemies who consigned him to death. Jesus makes himself weak – puts himself in the position of weakness, of forgiveness – in order to show God’s strength. Is it not as St Paul says? “The weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:25) And what is the source or origin of this love? Jesus teaches in the Gospel that we must love our enemy because then we will be true Sons of the Most High (that is, the Father) who is “kind [even] to the ungrateful and the selfish”. If we can be images of God’s love by loving our enemies, it is Jesus himself, the true Son of the Father, who reflects most perfectly his Father’s love. Father and Son are therefore united in this love: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Our Lord, triumphed over death, risen and ascended to heaven, calls across now to us, invites us to accept that gift of mercy, to recognise in humility our sins against him, but to rejoice in that love that knows no limits. Amen.