Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Surprising Graciousness of Grace

1 Samuel 28-31


It is amazing how, in the middle of war and conflict moments of sheer grace will appear. The Christmas truce of World War 1 was so unbelievable that it has almost been dismissed as a legend. But even the Snopes.com folk concur it actually happened. Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, described it:


. . . the Germans set trees on trench parapets and lit the candles. Then, they began singing carols, and though their language was unfamiliar to their enemies, the tunes were not. After a few trees were shot at, the British became more curious than belligerent and crawled forward to watch and listen. And after a while, they began to sing.


By Christmas morning, the "no man's land" between the trenches was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and (more solemnly) burying their dead between the lines. Soon they were even playing soccer, mostly with improvised balls.


According to the official war diary of the 133rd Saxon Regiment, "Tommy and Fritz" kicked about a real football supplied by a Scot. "This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid out as goals. The frozen ground was no great matter . . . The game ended 3-2 for Fritz." [1]


Centuries before, Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin treated each other graciously even when in battle. According to historical resources, when Richard was once wounded in battle, Saladin actually offered his personal physician to care for the King. In one conflict Richard lost his horse. Saladin sent him two replacements. Saladin also sent him gifts of fruit and snow, to keep his drinks cold[2]


In the last passages of the book of 1 Samuel we come across some very interesting stories of conflict and grace. In chapter 28 we have the fascinating story of Saul seeking out a witch—a woman who could communicate with the dead. Samuel was dead. The Philistines were gathering in the North to take on Israel. Saul had sought out God for guidance, but God wasn’t communicating.


Saul, in accordance with the Law of Moses, had previously expelled all mediums, witches, and necromancers from Israel. The penalty for practicing the dark arts was death. But Saul was desperate. He has his men search out for someone who communicates with the dead. They find a woman in Endor with such a reputation. So Saul disguises himself and visits the woman.
At first she objects, but then agrees. She calls up Samuel, and as soon as she sees his spirit she realizes—somehow—that she is in the presence of King Saul! Saul assures her; her life is safe with him.


A stern Samuel greets Saul and pronounces his doom. “The LORD has become you enemy. Through your own actions and attitudes you cut yourself off from God. Tomorrow you, your sons, and the armed forces of Israel will be handed over to the Philistines.” Saul falls to the ground overwhelmed with fear. His physical and mental state was a wreck. He was weak from worry and a lack of food. The woman turns to Saul and says, “Look, I did everything you told me to do. Now listen to me: you need to eat. Let me give you some food so you can go on your own way.” She goes out, butchers a calf, made fresh unleavened bread and set it before Saul and his men. They ate and left.


In the meanwhile, David and his men had been staying in Philistine territory under the protection of one of the Kings, named Achish. We are given a strong impression David has been pretending to be an ally of the Philistines. He even travels with them to a place of battle, but is sent back. The other Philistines do not trust him—perhaps with very good reason. David returns to his camp in Ziglag only to discover a roving band of Amalekites have destroyed his camp and carried off all the women, children and livestock.


David chases after the group with six hundred of his men. When they reach the Besor ravine, two hundred of his men were just too exhausted to proceed. So David leaves them with the supplies and he and 400 men carry the chase on. Some of the warriors come across an Egyptian wandering around, half starved and sick. They bring him to David and David gives orders for the man to be fed and tended to. It turns out this was a slave of one of the Amalekites. He had gotten sick, so his master left him to die in the wilderness. He had not eaten or drunk anything for three days.


The Egyptian knows where the raiding party would be, so he takes David to the site. David and his men find the Amalekites in the middle of a party—evidently they had taken a good deal of plunder throughout the Philistine country side while the Philistines were gathering their armies to attack Saul in the North. They were in the middle of enjoying the fruits of their plunder when David’s party attacks and routes the entire group.


Everything and everyone taken in the raid on Ziglag was safe. In this situation, David now has rights to everything, including the plunder taken from other Philistine villages. They arrive back to the Besor ravine. The four hundred who were with David suggested the two hundred who stayed behind deserved nothing. David would have none of this talk. “No, my brothers! What we have received is a gift from God. He has protected us and cared for us. The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is the same as that of him who went into battle. All will share alike.” When he arrived home he even sent some of the plunder to the elders of Judah as a gift. He also sent gifts to Bethel and the other areas where David had been wandering hiding out from Saul.


And now 1 Samuel comes to its tragic conclusion. Saul, his sons, and the Israelite army confronts the Philistines in Jezreel. It’s a valley/plains area where many military conflicts occurred throughout Israel’s history. Bordering the plain is a ridge of mountains called Gilboa. It is here Saul is mortally wounded by Philistine archers. Saul turns to his armor bearer and orders him to run him through in order not to face a tortuous death at the hands of Philistines. The terrified armor bearer can’t bring himself to do it, so Saul falls on his own sword. The armor bearer, seeing his King dead, falls on his sword, too. Saul, his armor bearer, his sons (including Jonathan) are dead on the battle field. The Israelite army is routed, and the Israelites living in the region flee their homes.


When the Philistines find the bodies of Saul and his sons, they beheaded them, stripped them, and nailed their bodies to the walls of Beth Shan. But in the midst of this terrible event, heroism still lives on. The people of Jabesh Gilead hear of Saul’s death and mistreatment. This was the town Saul rescued from the Ammonites as his first act as king. They quickly sent out all of their valiant men—their equivalent to the Special Forces—and they stage a raid, rescuing the bodies of Saul and his sons. The people cremated the bodies of the fallen King and princes and buried their bones under a tree in Jabesh. Then they fasted for seven days.


All of these stories have the common denominator of grace and graciousness in the midst of conflict and despair. Saul—totally abandoned by God—when he recognizes his fate and becomes completely immobilized, experiences a moment of grace from a completely unexpected source: a witch—a woman who doesn’t just prepare a simple meal, but kills her fatted calf. It was an extravagant display of hospitality. David, breaking with the military custom of the day shares the spoils of the Amalekite camp equally with those who remained behind, reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the field who are paid the full amount for just one hour of work. The people of Jabesh Gilead demonstrate self-sacrificial grace as they risk their lives in order to reclaim the bodies of Saul and his sons, giving them proper burials, and mourning for them.


Whenever we speak of grace, we tend to focus on how God extends his grace toward us. That’s certainly a good thing on which to focus! But have we considered the implications of grace: how we are called to extend grace to others? Isn’t it humbling to see a witch, who is living contrary to the Bible, extend grace in such an incredible way? Doesn’t it make you sit up and take notice when a Muslim general extends grace and kindness toward his enemy or when enemy combatants actually engage in gift giving on the battle front?


Two things come to me as I reflect on these stories at the end of Samuel. One, I realize, even those very different from me—those who have different beliefs and understandings, are capable of demonstrating God’s graciousness: which challenges me to look at everyone in a different light: especially those who might naturally be my enemies. Secondly, I realize as a recipient of God’s grace, I am to be a demonstration of his grace to all people. I fear we exhibit a basic inconsistency when it comes to grace. We want to speak of God’s grace and how we are recipients of it. We want others to honor our perspectives yet we expect them to accept us when we violate their perspectives. We want others to extend to us grace and the benefit of the doubt. Yet do we fail to give others what we expect from them? Are we, who want grace, seem to be somewhat stingy in giving it? We who have received the grace of God are called to demonstrate it toward others.


So what do we do? As recipients of God’s grace, we live out God’s grace to others. We learn to accept kindness from the hands of enemies and people radically different from us. We learn to view them in a different light—to recognize we are all children of the same Father. We live out God’s grace by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Instead of always criticizing others, we compliment. Instead of judging motives and griping, we seek to understand—and when we can’t understand, we just continue to love and refuse to hold a grudge.


The truth is we are all very much like each other. The Germans, British, and French learned this on Christmas day, 1914. King Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin realized this on the battlefields of Palestine. David, Saul, the Witch of Endor, the men of Jabesh Gilead all show us: we have so much in common. We all need grace—not just from God, but from each other—and we all need to extend grace.

So may your experience of grace, whether it is directly from God or through the kindness of strangers, may it lead you to extend grace. May it open our eyes to see how similar we really are. May it teach us patience and humility.


[1] Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, (New York: The Free Press, 2001). Weintraub, Stanley. "Amid Mud and Blood, Christmas Won Out."
Los Angeles Times 24 December 2003 (p. B11).
http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm
[2] “Saladin”, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com)

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