Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wednesday in the 2nd Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Aged Heroes

Readings: 1 Samuel 17:32-33, 37, 40-51; Psalm 144:1b, 2, 9-10; Mark 3:1-6

If there’s one striking feature in both our readings today, it is heroism. With nothing but a staff, a slingshot and a bagful of stones, the shepherd boy bravely confronts the mighty Philistine champion and slays him. And, as we will see tomorrow, the risks run by David do not end with the death of Goliath. Success in battle doesn’t automatically translate into a trouble-free life. On the contrary, his heroic behavior will win for David a far more dangerous enemy in Saul, the king himself. What is the source of David’s courage?

Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus refuses to be cowed by the presence of the Pharisees in the synagogue. Although he could easily ignore the man with the withered hand, or even heal him in secret, Jesus deliberately makes him the center of attention. In so doing, Jesus seeks to transform a dangerous situation into a valuable teaching moment. He wagers on the capacity of his enemies to feel pity for a fellow human being in need. And it is a wager that Jesus loses. Although the healing is successful, the teaching is a failure. We’re told that Jesus is angered and grieved at their hardness of heart. Even so, where did Jesus find the courage to gamble in the first place?

Quite obviously the urgency of both situations had something to do with it. Israel needed a champion and the man with the withered hand needed a healer. Someone had to step up to the plate, someone whose heart was soft enough to feel compassion, and whose will was strong enough to make a commitment. But, again, from where did the courage come?

Perhaps age has something to do with it. In the first reading, Saul raises only one objection to David’s offer to fight. You are only a youth… David is too young. And so, presumably, he suffers from all the liabilities of youth: lack of expertise and experience, impetuosity, naivete… But as the story unfolds, we find that it is also his age that swings the battle in David’s favor, albeit age of a different sort. For, although David is young in years, he is old in another sense. Consider his reply to Saul’s objection: The Lord who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine. David is slight in years but aged in the knowledge of God. He trusts that God will come to his aid now, just as God had done so in the past.

In the gospel too, we might imagine that Jesus is also young in years, at least in relation to his enemies. And yet, Jesus is also older by far – more so even than David – in the knowledge of God. For, as we may recall, Jesus is the Word who was with God and was God from the very beginning (see John 1:1). Is it any wonder then that Jesus’ trust in his Father is so strong that he will find the courage to submit himself even to the apparent hopelessness of death?

And what of us? Is it not likely that, like David and Jesus, we too will encounter circumstances that require us to act with compassion? From where will our courage come? How aged are we?

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