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Readings: 3rd Sunday after Trinity

12 June 2015

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1 Samuel 17 [1a; 4-11, 19-23] 32-49; Psalm 9.9-end; 2 Corinthians 6.1-13; Mark 4.35- end

Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

A GOOD storyteller plants enough clues within the narrative to ensure that, however unexpected the denouement, a logical pathway leading towards it can be retraced. The tale of David and Goliath is a most satisfying example of the art, and the compilers of the lectionary have helped to illuminate this by omitting verses from divergent textual traditions. Readers will recognise in 1 Samuel 17.12-18 a different version of the account of David's emergence in the preceding chapter. So it is that the Israelite troops encamp at a large wadi in the valley of Elah (1 Samuel 17.2), and, from there, catch sight of the Philistine hero Goliath, encased in bronze except for a spot on his forehead which a helmet would not have covered (1 Samuel 17.5). This is David's target when he hurls a stone from the wadi at his opponent (1 Samuel 17.40, 49).

It isn't only the internal evidence that allows us to say, "We should have seen that coming." The story has elements of the folk tale reaching back deep into antiquity. The king offers his daughter in marriage to anyone who can overcome the apparently unconquerable superhero (1 Samuel 17.24-27); there is sibling rivalry (1 Samuel 17.28); and, finally, the youngest brother, armed with nothing but the lightest of weapons, slays the heavily armoured giant. At this point, the similarities break down. Folk-tale endings have straightforward explanations: virtue usually triumphs over evil. For David, this is only the beginning, and his career will explore depths of moral complexity and fallibility.

There are puzzles in the biblical account too, and the killing of Goliath is attributed to someone else in 2 Samuel 21.19, leading some scholars to think that it was ascribed to David later, as testimony to his exceptional qualifications for kingship. To the amazed bystanders, and to the king himself, there is nothing obvious about his victory, and, had he died as expected, no one would have cared who he was. Now his identity, and the secret of his success, become a matter of interest. "Whose son are you, young man?" Saul asks, to which David replies: "I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlemite."

What Saul really wants to know is the source of the supernatural power at work in David's startling feat. The clues are there in their earlier dialogue. The Lord, David assured him as he went out to fight, had saved him from lions and bears, and would save him from the Philistine (1 Samuel 17.37).

The same preoccupation with supernatural power and identity is at work in Mark's telling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Mark continues to explore the question "Who is Jesus?" Having shown already that he has power over disease, infirmity, and evil spirits (Mark 1.21-3.30), the Gospel-writer turns to the forces of the natural world. He is not, as Christopher Tuckett points out, concerned with realism.* Fishermen accustomed to the conditions of the waters they fished in every day would not have been paralysed with fear during a storm; nor is it likely that Jesus could have slept through thunder, lightning, and rain. Our attention is being drawn instead to Jesus's authority, evidenced in the serenity of his own behaviour, and his ability to subdue the wind and sea, merely by speaking a couple of words to them.

Comparisons with Genesis 1.1-5 are being invoked, as order emerges out of chaos and the world obeys the God who brought it into being. But Jesus does not only rebuke the sea. He is equally stern with the disciples, who have shown a complete failure of faith (Mark 4.40). Though they have already seen many signs of Jesus's saving power, they are proving to be very slow learners. There is just a glimmer of understanding about who it is who has called them to work with him in their wondering, "Who, then, is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (Mark 4.41).

On Wednesday (24 June), the Church keeps the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. John's prophetic insight into the identity of Jesus is the prelude to his public ministry in all four Gospels. Only John records his definitive acclamation: "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1.29)

 

*C. M. Tuckett, "Mark", in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman (OUP, 2001)

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