The first reading shows David, when he was at war with King Saul, doing what Jesus commands in Luke – doing good to his enemy. The Gospel also has more challenges to Christians to break away from the worldly ways of treating those who wrong us.
1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
The liturgy has clearly chosen these selections illustrating a past instance of refraining from harming an enemy to lead into the words of Jesus we hear in the Gospel. It gives us little, however, of the complex story of the two books of Samuel which tell of the founding of the Israelite monarchy, with all the human failings of the first two kings, Saul and David. (For anyone interested in knowing it in depth, I recommend Robert Alter’s, Ancient Israel.)
Saul has reached the end of his life, with periods of madness, hoping to keep his power despite attacks from the Philistines. He is also fearful of being replaced by the young David, who had proved his strength in battle. Saul in jealousy has begun a pursuit of David, who has gathered his own warriors and support. While he spares Saul in this story, respecting the anointing that set apart the monarch, David still hopes for God to end Saul’s life and anoint David to the kingship. We do have just enough in this short reading to see something of the dramatic power of the anonymous author of this historical re-telling. (Alter compares him to Shakespeare in his dramatization of the English monarchs.)
The spear was both a weapon, which Saul had twice thrown against David, and also a sign of his rule. In taking it, David has both disarmed his enemy and suggested he could take over the kingship. The jug of water was essential to survival in the wilderness.
Psalm 102/103 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13
This is a psalm to savour. The description of how God loves constantly and generously, forgiving sins, is behind Jesus’ words in the Gospel, asking us to be as loving and compassionate to others as God has been to us. ‘As far as the east is from the west:’ at that time, east-west was thought of the limits of the known world. Today with our knowledge of the globe, North and South are limited, pole to pole a known distance, but travelling from the east to the west we never reach an end where east becomes west. So this becomes an image of never reaching the end of God’s forgiveness. There may be a hint in the last lines of a father’s love of how David, whose son Absalom would seek to overthrow him towards the end of his reign, still loved his son and wanted to save his life.
1 Corinthians 15:45-49
The second reading continues from last week with Paul’s teaching on the resurrection. In this section he turns to a comparison, using the book of Genesis for examples. He takes Adam ‘the first person’ as the representative of the human as a natural body, but when we are resurrected, we take on a second ‘spiritual body which comes from Christ. Christ’s incarnation as both God and human becomes the new identity open to all who follow him.
(The UK mass translation says Adam is the ‘first man’ but the Greek uses a word that means all humans and not just males. A proposed new revision for our liturgy may use ‘inclusive language’, which is what I prefer for better clarity and closer to the original text.)
The Gospel continues from last week in the so-called ‘Sermon on the Plain’ although this long teaching of Jesus is not like the modern ideal of a sermon, which takes only a few main points, explaining and enlarging on them. Both Luke and Matthew seem more to have collected a large number of separate topics that were remembered as basic to Jesus’ teaching but probably given on many occasions and to various audiences. In most cases, the sections are best reflected on separately. Those today have a certain unity, as they turn up-side-down a lot of typical worldly attitudes and practices –as challenging now as they would have been to the listener of that time.
First comes a general attitude: love your enemies rather give in to the hate and revenge which comes so naturally to people. But it goes farther: do good to them. The specific examples which follow this made more sense in that time. Slapping the cheek was an insult and not so much a physical injury, so it does not mean allowing serious harm, rather not getting into a tit-for-tat exchange of insults. The clothing mentioned does not correspond to modern wear, the ‘cloak’ a general outer garment, the tunic more like a contemporary shirt. Always giving when asked, and loaning without asking to be paid back are as difficult now as it was then.
Jesus next adds a general saying, ‘The Golden Rule’ – which was well-known at the time from other sources, too. A good way to know how to treat others is to think of how you like to be treated – as with fairness, helpfulness, kindness.
What follows is more a challenge to those disciples who might think they are good examples of righteousness in loving those around them, ‘neighbours’ or family and friends. They will get no credit for this kind of love, because it is common in worldly people, too. To give love to those who seem most unlovable does not always mean you will be praised by other people. But God assures us that it will be ‘rewarded’ for that depth of love is the way God loves.
Then one sentence that sums it all up: have the same compassion for all that God has.
More individual directions then follow, written in pattern of ‘what you will be done to you’. First, judging and condemning other people. These seem inter-personal acts rather than anything required as a public duty (as in the courts) and as I see it constantly in the modern world. It seems to me a special temptation of religious people – including myself. We do need to see what is wrong or right, but we can never know another’s mind and heart enough to pass personal judgement on them. Forgiveness echoes ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and reminds us that we are constantly in need of forgiveness ourselves.
The reading concludes with a metaphor of gift and giving, a vivid comparison which draws on agriculture at the time. Grain could be poured to be the lightest possible weight, but if pressed down as tightly as possible, up to the top of the measuring container and then spilling out over the edges, that is more than expected. This becomes an image of how God will not be outdone in generosity.
We could look at all this and see it as a way of ‘ticking off the boxes’ on how to behave, but instead all of these commands can seen as requiring a deep change in the heart from self-centeredness to loving everyone fully as we have been loved by God.