THE REX FACTOR
God is looking for people who can shape their world in the image of Christ. Those who shape their own lives first are best placed to do this.
Unlike Edith Piaff, most of us have regrets in life. At the shallow end this might include a blind date, a party invite we shouldn’t have accepted or an uncoordinated dance at the office party uploaded to YouTube. But some of us carry more serious regrets: one drink too many on the drive home; the relationship we didn’t put right in time; the lie which altered our life.
It is a relief, then, to read in 1 Samuel 15 that God himself has regrets; specifically, the choice of Saul to be king over Israel. What are we to make of this all too human depiction of God? Does it suggest God makes mistakes? Sometimes we tie ourselves in knots over questions we can’t answer, so perhaps we should let it lie there. All that can be said is that history is the outcome of free interplay between God and the human race. We are not pawns on a divine chess board; there is genuine freedom to our actions which God respects. Saul could have been a good choice but he turned out not to be, as he allowed vanity and insecurity to influence his power.
God’s regret over Saul was shared by Samuel, the spiritual leader of Israel who anointed him. Samuel was stricken with grief over Saul’s failings, taking upon himself responsibility for the outcome. He was mired in the kind of torpor we sometimes feel where life seems pointless and we lack the energy or the desire to live it. God emerged from his regret quicker, however, and gave Samuel the task of anointing a new king.
We should have sympathy for the prophet Samuel here. Most of us have sought to do the right thing for God from time to time, only to be left with a sense of failure: a doomed attempt to reconcile with an opponent; a fervent prayer for healing which did not emerge; a sharing of our faith which was thrown back in our face. Samuel had anointed the wrong king and was now being asked to go and anoint another stranger in the hope he would be better. When we are overcome with a sense of futility, God asks us to take the next step. We may feel groggy, like the first faltering steps after sleep, but it is a mark of our hope in God to make them, however tiny and pointless they may feel to us at the time.
Samuel had further concerns, too. Saul was dangerously unhinged after being repudiated as king, had a known temper and nothing to lose. Samuel’s life was at risk in conducting his ministry so publicly around him, but God did not permit him to go to ground; instead, he is sent to Bethlehem to seek out the family of Jesse, where the second king of Israel would be found.
There were dangers both for Samuel and the people of Bethlehem here. Like French villagers who harboured Resistance fighters, the risks of welcoming Samuel included summary executions. No wonder the narrator says the elders of the town trembled when Samuel appeared. And so God directs Samuel to say he has simply come to sacrifice to the Lord, not to anoint a new king.
Some people take an absolute view of truth, rather like the oath sworn in court to tell the whole truth. Others take a more pragmatic view and may take some inspiration from this passage. God allowed Samuel to tell a partial truth to conceal a deeper intention. He may well have brought an animal to sacrifice, but it was a prop intended to mislead. In doing so, he offered some protection to people whose lives were on the line. Most of us would agree that concealment was the kindest thing Samuel could have done in the circumstances. The risk for us comes when we begin to tell partial truths as a matter of course and increasingly to protect ourselves, rather than in service of people genuinely in peril.
And so Samuel gets to meet Jesse’s family. God hadn’t given Samuel a name to work with, and so begins a parade of likely lads before the prophet. He sizes them up and quickly decides Eliab must be the man, based on his looks and height, only to be told God is more concerned with the character question. This story is a paean to the triumph of content over image and it probably has more relevance to our era than to any previous one.
It is a truism to say we are in thrall to looks today; we know our media obsess over appearance, though the burden is not equally shared because women are unsparingly assessed for signs of ageing or supposedly letting themselves go in a way men rarely are. This is not an ephemeral question because studies show that looks lead to bigger salaries and wider opportunities. In some professions like acting or singing, it is almost an entry requirement, though we rarely stop to ask why it should be so.
We are called to love ourselves in the way we should love others, so attention to appearance is fine and usually an indication of how much we love ourselves, ranging on a scale from the person with no self-worth to one with raging narcissism. But there is only so much we can do with our appearance and frantic attempts to stay young when we are older can look increasingly ridiculous when a face is frozen with Botox. While looks fade, the inner character which God is concerned with should blossom. As St. Paul said, we are being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another.
We should always work on our character; it is shaped by people and events whether we like it or not, so some honest attention to its development is called for. God is looking for people who can shape their world in the image of Christ, and those who shape their own lives first are best placed to do this.
Eventually Samuel gets to the end of the seven sons, perplexed he has not found the chosen one, asking Jesse if there is anyone else. And so David, the youngest, out with the sheep while others ate and drank, is called in. There is a certain irony in David being described as glowing with looks and health, given God’s dismissal of such attributes. David was clearly one of those annoying people who had looks and talent in abundance. But it was David’s character that God looked upon with approval.
David was nearly overlooked in the field, and in the same way, we often miss the person, the resource or the idea God has in store for us because we only see what is right in front of us. Wisdom is the ability to step back and take in a wider view. While we obsess over fame today, God has a habit of picking people from obscurity, a trend shown long ago in a field in Bethlehem, long before a birth in a stable there. We may worry about seizures in social mobility today, but the chances of spiritual mobility – of being used by God – are endless and beguiling.
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