…thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God. All this multitude, too, shall learn that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves. For the battle is the LORD's and he shall deliver you into our hands."
Today’s readings from 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Mark concern warfare and in both cases, “…the battle is the Lord’s.” The first concerns a contest between champions. When warfare broke out between agrarian, pastoral people who had more important things to do than kill each other, they sometimes settled their differences with a simple agreement: let our best warriors fight mano a mano (hand to hand). Whosever champion wins, that army wins and the losers will retreat from the field. We find another instance of this agreement in the Iliad, between Menelaus and Paris.
As the warriors approached each other they sized one another up and engaged in the usual taunting, (not unlike today’s “champions” and their televised boxing matches.) Goliath boasted of his strength and obvious superiority over the shepherd boy David. David boasted of his superior God. Goliath had his memories of battle to bolster his confidence. David had traditional memories of the Hebrew religion, especially Abraham’s defeat of the kings, Moses’ defeat of the Pharaoh, Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, and many stories of the Judges, both men and women, who led their outnumbered Hebrews to victory over superior Philistine forces.
Which story would prevail: the personal experience of Goliath or the personal faith of David? Remember that David’s backers, especially Saul, had little confidence in him. They had agreed to the contest but could find no one except the untested shepherd boy to face the enemy. Because he was too small for a man’s armor, they wouldn’t even lose his equipment! The Hebrews were quite prepared to quit the field and suffer further ravaging of their fields, cattle, provisions and homes.
Today’s gospel also describes personal combat of Jesus against a group of Pharisees. At stake is compassion for a man with a withered hand versus the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Jesus suggests that work on the Sabbath is not the issue since his opponents will immediately “take counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.” Their conspiring is certainly work. In this contest Jesus prevails, but on another, future day he will lose. That story is yet to be told.
One of the winners is, of course, the man with a withered hand. Jesus has fought and won for him, even at the cost of his own life. Mercy has won. But “Mercy” is another of God’s names and so we recall David’s words, “…the battle is the Lord’s.”
As we begin another year, reading deeply our beloved scriptures, we welcome this merciful reminder of mercy. God in his mercy for us teaches us to be merciful to others. “Blessed are the merciful, they shall be shown mercy.” We need not look for overwhelming advantage over our enemies in our American "culture wars" or our dealings with other nations. These advantages weigh little in God’s scales, for whom the whole universe is like a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“FOR THE BATTLE IS THE LORD'S AND HE SHALL DELIVER YOU INTO OUR HANDS."