Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (1 Samuel 21:1-6) transports me to the land of Nob, a Palestinian pueblo populated by pious priests, where a merciful act of compassion comes at a costly price. David is on the run from the mad King Saul, who is bound and determined to kill his young rival. This could be the inspiration for all those great stories of desperation and hot pursuit, where the audience suspends judgment and gives the hunted and haunted hero plenty of ethical leeway and mercy in order for him to avoid capture by the obsessed and fanatical pursuer. It’s Jean Valjean being pursued by Inspector Javert. It’s the A-Team being pursued by the Army. It’s Dr. Richard Kimble being pursued by Police Lieutenant Gerard (who should have been looking for the one-armed man all along). Here in our story, David (the shepherd-warrior, not David Jansen) concocts a cover story worthy of Valjean or Kimball or Hannibal Smith, telling the priest a highly classified (and highly falsified) top secret: the King has sent me on a special mission that no one can know about. But I guess it wouldn’t hurt to let you in on a few of the broad strokes, and by the way, the men are running low on rations – could you spare some bread? The priest explains that he has no ordinary bread, only some week-old holy bread in the cabinet. David assures the priest that all of his men are ritually pure; none of them have scored with the opposite sex on this mission (a likely story). He fabricates all this to get his hands on something that will satisfy his ever-growing hunger pangs. Since the priest is now in on the secret and knows the score, he has mercy on David and the men and gives them permission to eat the consecrated crullers. A chapter later, King Saul gets wind of what happened and rewards this act of mercy by ordering the murder of not only this priest, but the entire village of priests. Mercy gets slaughtered.
All this is done in the presence of God. I love the name of the holy food kept by the merciful priest: the Bread of Presence. There was supposed to be some on hand at all times there in the tabernacle, where God was thought to reside. There’s a back story here that shifts that understanding, though. The presence of God was no longer confined to the tabernacle; it was with David. The presence of God had withdrawn from Saul, replaced by an evil spirit from the Lord. And David here not only had the presence of God, but the presence of mind to survive another day on the run on his way to becoming King. He also became ancestor to the Messiah, to the one who would be hunted and haunted by the Javerts and Gerards of his day, and would on one occasion reference this very story to the Pharisees as justification for his own disciples’ unconventional behavior.
Perhaps pulling out that story was an act of mercy on Jesus’ part, an act of compassion for David, a withholding of judgment on a deceit that cost many people their lives. We can hope that if mercy was present there in that tragedy, then surely goodness and mercy and the presence of God will follow us as we avoid our pursuers and create concoctions to get bread for our journeys. May our bread not be so costly as David’s. Maybe it was experiences like this that led David to bring so much of the blues to his psalms. The blues are the stuff of mercy and tragedy. David could have been channeling Clapton in today’s bluesy story, singing with old Slowhand himself – Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score, I finally found a way to live in the presence of the Lord.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Mercy and Sacrifice.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.