Saturday, February 14, 2009

Playing the Fool

I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.

                        1 Samuel 26.21 (KJV) 

Flawed Character

Saul, the first king of Israel, and David, his successor, rival one another as the most deeply flawed character in the Bible. While David’s weaknesses aren’t manifested until taking the throne, both are plagued with restless minds and insecurities that breed paranoia and stubbornness. Their relationship is gnarly—overly competitive, violent, erratic, and pummeled by jealousy. Saul is picked to rule Israel after he proves his prowess in battle. Yet military genius also cripples his ability to follow God’s orders, plunging the general-king into black moods. At the suggestion of those who’ve heard of a rising star named David, Saul calls the young singer-songwriter to court to soothe his troubled mind. Soon thereafter, slaying Goliath makes David a national hero, and he and Jonathan, Saul’s heir, become attached at the hip. (We’ll let that be for now.) All of this should please the embattled king, but it only feeds Saul’s instability. David’s further triumphs inspire a popular saying: “Saul has killed thousands, David tens of thousands.” This isn’t good. Things come to a head when Saul’s horrible job performance leads God to bypass Jonathan and appoint David as Israel’s next monarch. After that, the current and future kings square off for a fight to the death.

Unaware and Vulnerable

Twice the young warrior catches Saul unaware and vulnerable to assassination. The first time he’s literally caught with his pants down, having ducked into a cave to relieve himself while David and his men lurk in the shadows. The men urge David to end the conflict then and there. Instead, he chooses mercy. He sneaks up to Saul and cuts off a piece of his robe. As Saul returns to his men, David follows him out of the cave to show him the piece, upending malicious rumors he intends to kill the king. This moves Saul greatly, but he eventually relapses into paranoia and resumes his hunt to destroy David.

Saul’s literally asleep on the job the next time David catches him. Again, David’s urged to murder Saul with the same logic: “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands.” Yet again, David opts out and takes Saul’s spear as a souvenir proving he could have killed him. But this time David berates Saul’s guard for shirking his duties. The yelling wakes Saul, not only out of sound sleep, but also out of unsound desire to avenge imagined crimes against him. “I’ve been such a fool. I’ve made terrible mistakes,” Saul confesses. “I promise I’ll stop all this madness.” It’s a big admission from a once-big man severely reduced by jealousy and distrust. It’s particularly touching because Saul’s wounded pride stops short of actually begging forgiveness. Still, David respects the apology lining the confession. Both men go their separate ways in peace.

Heart Trouble

Valentine’s Day seems a most appropriate occasion, I think, to consider how easily malignant thoughts trigger heart trouble. Although Saul’s problems with David are baseless, from him we see how unresolved grievances—real and imaginary—infect our entire system, gripping us with obsessive hatred, jealousy, and suspicions. Ill will often drives us over the edge to malicious fantasies and behaviors. Longings for vengeance, actively pursued or passively harbored, leave us like Saul, playing the fool, sometimes caught with our pants down, sometimes sleeping on the job. When we find we’re making fools of ourselves, though, we should also do like Saul: admit it inwardly and confess it to those we’ve wronged—even if they’ve wronged us. It’s not easy. But it’s right.

Forgiveness is triangular. We forgive. We ask God to forgive us. But the triangle isn’t complete until we ask forgiveness of others. Since it’s the last thing we want to do, we leave it for last. Yet Jesus says the forgiveness triangle must be assembled in sequence, starting with apologies to others. “If you’re at the altar and remember someone has something against you, first go and be reconciled with him/her; then come back.” (Matthew 5.23-24) Once that’s cleared up, we forgive, and then ask God’s forgiveness. “But if you don’t forgive others, your Father won’t forgive you.” (Matthew 6.15) After Saul blew his first chance to apologize, suspicions and resentments returned to haunt him. He figured it out the second time and, though he and David separated, they left united in peace.

Forgiveness is triangular. Until we ask forgiveness of others, the triangle is incomplete.

(Tomorrow: Yours Always)

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