June 23, 2024

Love and Envy

Proper 7b 2024 • Church of the Advent, Baltimore • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 

Saul was afraid of David ...

Today’s reading from First Samuel shows us the stark difference between two human emotions: love and envy. Two weeks ago we heard Samuel’s warning that having a king was a bad idea; last week we saw Saul turning bad, and Samuel sent to find a new king, David. And today we see what happened after David’s defeat of Goliath.

Saul can’t help but admire David, who becomes one of his trusted warriors. He sends him out to battle over and over, and David always returns victorious — so much so that people honor him over Saul — and their cheers are sour in Saul’s ears. Even the music of David’s harp becomes an annoyance to Saul. Even his presence arouses Saul to mayhem, trying to spear him as he plays.

Here we see green-eyed envy at its worst, its most bitter and soul-destroying. Pride is often classed as the worst sin, but isn’t envy just a form of wounded pride? And like wild animals, it is dangerous when wounded. As God’s favor drains from Saul to rest on David, his envious anger grows.

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So there’s your envy! what about love? We see love in Saul’s family too — in his son Jonathan, who, as soon as he sets eyes on David, feels his heart melt as if — as Scripture puts it — his own soul is bound to David, and he loves him as his own soul and makes a covenant with him. That is powerful language, perhaps embarrassingly so for the Greeks who left these verse out when they translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Yet there it stands, the beginning of what some have called the greatest love story in the Bible. As one of the earliest Rabbinic texts (Mishnah Pirke Avot, 5:16) proclaims, “When a love depends on something, when that thing passes away, the love passes away; but when a love does not depend on anything, it lasts for ever. What is the love that passes away? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And the love that does not pass away? The love of David and Jonathan.” 

And envy comes into this, too — for Saul knows that his son has taken a liking to David — to put it mildly. In succeeding chapters Saul will curse Jonathan on account of David, and even try to kill him. Saul and Jonathan have become rivals (at least in Saul’s mind) for David’s love and loyalty.

Of course, it starts before David kills Goliath — though we didn’t hear that part of the account — but it tells us a bit about what bothers Saul. When David first volunteered to fight Goliath, Saul tried to dress him up in his own armor, and gave him his sword. But they don’t fit — Scripture tells us Saul is a big guy, head and shoulders above everyone else, but David is probably no more than sixteen. So he rejects Saul’s oversize armor — and the sword too big for him to swing.

But after David kills Goliath with his slingshot, Jonathan — also about David’s age — is so taken with David that he strips off his robe and armor, and gives them to David, along with his sword, his bow, and his belt. Imagine how Saul felt at that moment: David rejected him, and chose his son instead — and his son chooses David! And green-eyed envy stirs up and Saul begins to give in to the Dark Side, even against his own son. (Aren’t you glad Fathers’ Day was last week!)

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Such is the force of envy. But while envy is a powerful force it cannot do what love can do. For even in the midst of this envious struggle, love is there, conquering all, as the Roman poet said.

Think for a moment, about how much the world is driven by these two engines, love and envy. Think how much they resemble so many of the other pairs of joys and pains, of what builds up and what tears down; and how the building-up always seems to triumph in the end. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about these conflicting forces, and how love manages to triumph. Envy may raise obstacles, but love will knock them down, or pass right through them: for all the forces of affliction, hardship, calamity, beating, imprisonment, riot, labor, sleepless nights and hunger — all of these are overcome by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth, and the power of God. All of this is better armor than a mere sword, bow and belt. These are the triumphant weapons of righteousness for those inspired with the love of God. All it takes is opening the doors of the heart — turning away from the dark side of envy and embracing the light of love.

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For with God, and through the love of God, even the seemingly impossible is possible. With God, as the Apostle testifies, the one treated as an imposter is the one who tells the truth; the one undocumented and unknown is the chief witness; the one threatened with death and dying is revealed to be alive and well; the sorrowful one is lifted up with joy; the one with nothing is able to provide everything. And, as the Gospel reminds us, the one asleep in the stern of the boat can quell the storm of wind and sea.

We will hear more of Saul and Jonathan and David in coming weeks — it ends sadly for all three — though David becomes a great king; — not perfect, by any means — we’ll hear about that as well — but devoted to God even when he fails, even when he himself gives in to envy, to have what another possesses; even when he stoops to a criminal conspiracy worthy of punishment.

But for now, we have three witnesses before us: we have young David — this teenager fresh from his victories, clothed in the kit of another young soldier — one who loves him as he loves his own soul — envied by Saul, yet adored by the people. We have the Apostle, shaming the haughty Corinthians by his own humility and open-handed forgiveness. And we have Jesus himself, as he triumphs over sea and wind, calming the storm and strife — not with a shout — but with a gentle word of peace. ✠ 

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