The period of winter ordinary (or counted) time that falls between the great Church seasons of Christmas and Lent carries the weight of two great Christian “themes” – the first is a carry-forward of the manifestation theme of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord – whereby the Mystery of the Incarnation – that is God’s presence and power within the created order - is demonstrated. The second is the call or vocation of each person to enter and participate in both that presence and that power by giving over the gifts of one’s human existence to the service of God’s reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” That is essentially what each of us did in Baptism, and renew every time we receive the Eucharist.
Today’s readings invite us to take up both these themes in wonderful stories of human interaction. The first is an extended account of the young shepherd - David’s encounter with the Phoenician Giant-warrior, Goliath. This very popular account is one that preachers love to share with children to remind them that in our weakness God can be shown as strong. The most obvious aspect of the story, and one the biblical author took care to point out in all kinds of ways, is that David is clearly out of his league here. But what might not be so obvious is that David is not without some abilities that God can use. In other words, this isn’t a case of God imposing something magically. Rather God is using the natural gifts and training of the young shepherd including not only his slingshot skills – and a couple of hard stones - but also his courage and his confidence in both his own historical accomplishments against bigger and fiercer opponents (bear and lion) and his deep reverence for a real and vitally interested God who has supported him in those accomplishments. Further, David taunts his enemy and riles him up so that Goliath is careless in his arrogant annoyance. In all ways we can see that in truth David IS a worthy opponent because God has instilled faith, strengthened his courage and has led him to develop and hone his skills (and provided him with some solid rocks!)
The Psalm challenges us to recognize God’s presence not only in David and his cause, but in the rock itself that is flung to destroy the enemy. With God as our rock can any true evil be safe from being smashed?
The Gospel invites us to the same theme, but with a bit of a different twist. Jesus faces his own form of a Goliath in the hardheartedness of the leaders of the people. He invites these experts in the Torah to respond to the problem of doing what is good for a wounded person on the Sabbath. Since the purpose of the Sabbath is to worship and honor God, the source of all good, how could exercising real goodness toward one of God’s people be contrary to the intention and meaning of the Sabbath? These scholars and teachers are not really interested in the genuine meaning of the Sabbath, however, as much as they are interested in their own way of doing things, or worse, their own power. The fact that they would go out of the Synagogue and conspire with representatives of imperial power (Herod’s party) – their own most hated enemies – shows how hardhearted they have become. Such intransigence is worthy of the rock of God’s presence to smash it – and Jesus does, by way of healing the sufferer with his gift of compassion.
Today is also the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an eight day period of prayer which began at the beginning of the last Century and today celebrated throughout the world as Christian groups seek to find their common ground in Christ and the Spirit. In the old calendar, January 18 marked a feast of St. Peter (in chains), and the week ends with the Feast of St. Paul – bookends of apostolic unity. Throughout this week, and throughout the year, all Christians are called to pray for unity and to work against the scandal of the rancor and division among Christians with all our (considerable) gifts of talent and training. Now that is a Goliath worth slinging our divine rock against!
“Blessed be the Lord, my rock!” Psalm 144
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