Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Oddfather

1 Samuel 21 & 22

His name was Vincent “the Chin” Gigante. He was a light weight boxing champion, a mafia hit man, consigliore of the Genovese Crime family of New York, and eventually the head of the Genovese syndicate.

He was also known as “The Oddfather.”

Why? In the late 60’s he was able to beat a conviction by acting crazy. It occurred to him this was a useful ruse. So he began to be seen on the streets of Manhattan wearing a bath robe and pajamas, mumbling to himself, shuffling around, acting crazy. He was able to run the Genovese Crime Syndicate in obscurity—most of the authorities didn’t realize he was the real power behind the family. They thought Tony Solerno was the boss—maybe Vincent rose to prominence after Tony’s arrest and conviction in 1987. They didn’t realize the Oddfather had been running the family since 1981 using Tony as a front man. He was finally convicted in 1997. Later on, in 2003, he admitted in Federal court it was all an act.

I couldn’t help but think of Vincent as I was reading the story of David in Gath. The story takes place in 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run from King Saul. He flees to the Philistine stronghold of Gath—you know: Goliath’s home town! Evidently the people of Gath recognize David as the great hero of the Hebrews so they drag him before the King. David realizing his terrible predicament does a Vincent “the Chin” act: scribbling all over the walls, drooling into his beard—generally acting like a crazy guy. The King of Gath in exasperation says: "Do we have a shortage of mental cases here in Gath that we need another one? I don’t need some fool marking all over my walls! Get him out of here!" Of course, in the ancient near east, insane people were generally left unharmed—people believed they were touched by the gods.

However, this is only part of a group of stories beginning not with David in Gath, but David in Nob —at the very first of the chapter. Jonathan had informed David of Saul’s murderous intentions so David ran—evidently without any provisions for the journey. He makes it to the priestly city of Nob where the Tabernacle was set up. When Ahimelech sees David alone—and obviously in need of food—he becomes alarmed. “What are you doing here? Why are you alone?” David lies and says he is on a mission for the King. In his haste he brought no provisions and he is now in very difficult circumstances. Is there any food?

The only food available is the holy bread that is set out in the Tabernacle and changed every week for a new batch of twelve loaves. Evidently, the bread has just been replaced, so Ahimelech gives him the bread—even though the Law of Moses is very specific: only priests are allowed to eat the holy bread. David then asks if there were any weapons available because in his hurry to accomplish the King’s mission, he neglected to equip himself. It just so happens, the sword of Goliath was in the Tabernacle, so it was given to David.

Then a chill goes up the reader’s back. The chill comes from an observation: Saul’s chief herdsman, Doeg, the Edomite, is present. Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of some calamity ahead. Certainly no good will come of Doeg’s presence.

These two stories have given religious people a hard time. Because here we have a man after God’s own heart who finds himself lying to priests, breaking the Law of Moses, and deceiving the King of Gath. Part of the problem is the text gives no indication of condemnation here—even though other times when David sins, it is presented clearly as sin. The Rabbis throughout the ages have explained similar transgressions in light of a principle called Sakonas Nefoshos (“a danger to life”). According to the principle, all the regulations of the Law, with the exception for laws against idolatry, murder, and sexual sin, are suspended if there is a danger to life. Saving life becomes the over-riding biblical principle that trumps most all of the regulations.

From Nob, David goes to Gath and acts crazy to escape certain execution there. He then makes his way to the hill country of Adullam where he lives in the caves. His entire family joins him. Evidently they have become fugitives from Saul’s wrath, too. Then an interesting thing happens. People start coming out of the wood work—or stone work—to join David. They are people who are in distress, in debt, and “bitter of spirit.” And they look to David as their leader.

After this David goes to the King of Moab and seeks asylum for his parents. David returns to Judah, out of obedience to a prophetic word from God.

In the meanwhile, Saul is pitching a fit over David’s supposed treachery. He rants and raves over Jonathan’s collusion with David, and accuses all of his advisors and generals of the same thing. Doeg, however volunteers he saw David at Nob. “This isn’t a conspiracy of your generals! It’s a conspiracy of the priests! They are the ones aiding and abetting David!”

Saul summons Ahimelech and the priests and accuses them to their faces. Ahimelech protests. “We helped David! The head of your body guard! He is someone who’s always been loyal to you. We don’t know anything about the politics of the court.” Saul will hear no defense from the priest. He’s already been judged guilty. He commands his men to strike down the priests, but they refuse. He turns to Doeg, the Edomite and commands him to do the job. Doeg puts 85 priests to the sword—presumably with the help of others. But that isn’t enough for Saul—he has the entire village of Nob put to the sword, and Doeg leads the way.

Only the son of Ahimelech escapes. Abiathar escapes to David’s encampment and tells him what has happened. Immediately David reacts: “I am responsible. When I saw Doeg at the Tabernacle, I knew nothing good would come of it. Stay with me. The one who seeks your life seeks mine. You will be safe with me.”

There is an interesting structure to this group of stories. The stories begin and end with the priests at Nob, Doeg, and a sword. These stories mirror each other. Another mirror device appears with the King of Gath and the King of Moab. At the very center of these mirror images seems to be the point: David becomes the leader of a rag-tag group of people filled with the distressed, the poor, and those in despair. These folks are down and out.

Think about it for a minute. David is a man who has become a hero in Israel. The people were singing “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten-thousands.” He had been made head of Saul’s body guard. He was well respected. And now this young man finds himself having to break the very Law he has such a high respect for, having to play the fool in front of a foreign king, having to appeal to another foreign king to care for his own parents, and living in caves. David has become a broken man.

But in the middle of it all—take note of his true mental state. Psalm 34 is a reflection of David on this situation. Listen to some of his words:

“I will praise the LORD at all times, his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice…this poor man called and the LORD heard him; he saved him from all his troubles; the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him and he delivers them. Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him…Come my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.”
Many believe this Psalm was written and sung in the caves of Adullam. The “children” he teaches are not his physical children, but the group of outcasts who have rallied to him.

So what is to be made of this? What is the point? Here’s an opinion: It seems before God really uses a person to lead people, he breaks him or her. They have to go through a wilderness experience to learn humility and trust. Only then are they fully equipped to lead. David is being forged in the fires of trial. He’s beginning to understand the people he is called to lead. The rag-tag group of broken spirited and distressed people who gather around him gather around someone who understands their desperation. David is one of them—but he is more! He is one of them but he has learned the fear of God—he has learned to take refuge in Him. Now, as a shepherd, he will show his people the way.

Some of you understand, don’t you? You’ve experienced that brokenness. As a result you’ve become equipped to help others in ways no one else can appreciate. Instead of looking down on those who suffer, you can get down on your knees and look at things from their perspective. There is no condescension on your part! You know and you understand!

The world is filled with the distressed, the poor, and the bitter of spirit. Do we want to lead them to safety? Do we want to help them? Then it seems to me, we had better get in touch with those times when we suffered and struggled. The older we become, the easier it is to forget certain struggles in our lives. It is easier to become haughty and arrogant; it is easier to become callous and condescending. It is easier to forget how often we fail God and mess up. We end up rationalizing to the point we think we’re better than others!

Maybe we need to take a lesson from Vincent “the Chin.” Maybe we need to go a little crazy—see the world from a very different perspective. Look through new eyes. Try to understand the world as seen through the distressed, the poor, and the bitter of spirit. Until we go a little crazy, I don’t think we’ll ever appreciate those we hope to touch for God. No, don’t walk around the streets of your city in your bathrobe mumbling to yourself! But begin to look through the eyes of the broken.

You may think this suggestion is worthy of Vincent the Chin: it certainly sounds crazy. Maybe, if we haven’t been broken, maybe we need to ask God to break us for the sake of the world. Maybe we need to ask God to open our hearts and our eyes to those broken all around us. It’s scary, it’s crazy. But maybe it’s what we need. Are we willing for God to do with us what he wants to touch our world? Think about it.

May you learn to understand the heart of the broken and distressed. May you rise up by kneeling down to lead them. May you teach them the fear of the Lord.

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