Today’s first testament reading from 1 Samuel is about God directing Samuel to anoint David as king. Now this is where I have a “hate” relationship with the Lectionary – because there is a whole big story that gets chopped out for the sake of brevity! Last week, we heard the people demanding a king and, if you paid close attention to the scripture citations, we skipped from the demand in chapter 8 to the anointing of Saul at Gilgal in chapter 11. That means three chapters were cut out! There’s back story here. In those three chapters, we hear that Saul has a chance meeting with Samuel on the count of losing his father’s donkeys. What is reported of Saul is he is a “mighty man of valor,” who was “handsome” and stood “head and shoulders above everyone else.” Much is made of Saul’s height in the chapters telling of how he meets Samuel. It seems that his height and outer appearance was part of what made the impression as his being fit to be a leader.
The other part of what we missed is why this week we hear God has rejected Saul. This is part of what was left out too. When Saul takes over as king, he begins to exhibit two major character flaws: pride and impatience. Saul is prideful and begins to ignore the advice of Samuel who is mediating God’s instructions. Saul is going to do things his way! Saul is also impatient and appears to give in to the anxiety of his soldiers and others in his charge. Rather than waiting on the word of the Lord, he charges ahead. Remember last week, we heard in Samuel’s warning to the people about what having a kings would mean for them this line: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Now this does not mean that God has abandoned the Israelites – it does mean he will let them live with the consequences of choosing Saul. In this week’s reading, God begins to lay the groundwork for the next king.
We hear Samuel’s fear that Saul would become enraged and kill him. Saul is beginning to show signs of mental illness and violence. Many have speculated on the exact nature of Saul’s manias but we know he attempted to kill David at one point later in the story. God gives Samuel a plan to make contact with Jesse. One by one, each of the sons passes by Samuel. The first makes an impression but God tells Samuel not to look on the outer appearance or the “height of his stature” – almost as if to say, “You fell for the tall thing with Saul – that’s not what we’re looking for here!” God reminds Samuel that he sees the heart and doesn’t fall for outward appearances. Finally, after seven sons pass by and the answer is still no, he asks Jesse, “Got any more kids?” “Sure, one more, but he’s with the sheep.” And this! This is the son – one who is just a boy. The most unlikely one but look at how he is described – “ruddy” (the outdoors type), has “beautiful eyes” and is “handsome.” The eyes are the mirror of the soul – to be seen is to be known. God sees that what is on the outside is congruent with what is on the inside – David is anointed as the next king. Now this does not mean that David is perfect. He has some serious character flaws and does some pretty terrible things, but God works through him in spite of it. Let me also say that God worked through Saul too. Even as unstable as Saul was, it was under his leadership that the Philistines are defeated and peace secured at the northern border.
Paul speaks of this seeing past outward appearances in his letter to the Church in Corinth today too. He says “we regard no one from a human point of view” even though Christ was once human. He is calling the Corinthians to see past the obvious signs of wealth, status, and honor and look to the heart – to the new creation we become in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus’ parables today about seeds also speak of a hidden inner nature. We have all done the elementary school science project of sprouting the lima bean in wet paper towels, right? We know what happens when a seed is planted. But, even knowing what happens, we cannot completely explain why it happens. Why do some seeds sprout and others don’t? I can’t get parsnips to grow … carrots, yes / parsnips, no. Why one and not the other? I don’t have a clue. It is mystery. A point Jesus is making about both the seed sprouted and the mustard seed is that there is a mysterious hidden nature to the seed. When I speak of mystery in this way, I’m not talking about Scooby Doo and Shaggy solving a mystery! We are talking about the Divine Mystery which is beyond human understanding. The inner nature of things is often a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Jesus uses some hyperbole in speaking of the mustard seed growing into a great shrub or tree. Mustard was known to the ancients and it’s the same stuff we have – a low growing leafy plant with yellow flowers. The Jewish people avoided mustard at all costs because it doesn’t play by the rules – it spreads invasively! It gets all mixed up in the crops and thus breaks the Jewish laws forbidding two kinds of crops in the same field. It messes up everything and so it is with the kingdom of God! The inner nature of the kingdom is it will show up in unexpected and seemingly innocuous ways but it will spread like a weed. The inner nature is more powerful and pervasive than what the outer nature would indicate.
We are all people with both an inner nature and an outer one. The spiritual life is about becoming more real and transparent so that the inner world and outer world are congruent – what you see is what you get. There are people with a high degree of congruence and others who seem not to possess it at all. There will be people who look good on the surface and mouth all the right words, but their actions show their inner nature is not what they portray. They can betray and hurt us deeply! There will also be people who don’t look so good on the outside but whose inner nature is kind and generous. There will be things we discover in ourselves as we grow in Christ - some will be wonderful and others disturbing. But we must make the inner journey so that God may, through grace, bring our inner and outer worlds into alignment. We need not fear this process - for just as God worked through Saul in spite of his flaws, God also works through us.
My friend Annabelle pointed something out to me when we were talking about the Caitlyn Jenner story this week. Apparently, she read that Caitlyn (while still Bruce) and the Kardashian family financed a church start up. While the Kardashians have fallen away, Caitlyn still attends this church. I found this rather remarkable in light of thinking how the kingdom might just show up through unexpected people in unlikely places. This trans woman who lived so long with an incongruent inner and outer world now has changed … but still is a person of faith. May we find the grace to see the inner nature of others, be honest and courageous to face our own inner nature, and trust that God is working in the midst of these discoveries no matter what.