The moral landscape of Scripture is often treacherous, and unadvisedly applied to present life. Saul, according to the old story, was rejected from being king over Israel because he refrained from absolute obedience to a divine command. “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam. 15:3). Instead, “Saul and the people spared Agag [king of the Amalekites], and the best of the sheep and of all the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy” (1 Sam. 15:9). Thus, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23). This is an ancient received tradition from a land and life not our own. What does God want?
The story continues with the election of David, the young shepherd boy. The moral lesson is dubious at best. And yet, the mind simmers over these strange details, registers them with contemplative calm and distance. We are still “in the presence of enemies,” but the enemy is as much within as without (Ps. 23). Goodness and mercy require a supplement, a rod and staff. What are we to think?
Somewhere in his journals, Thomas Merton remarked on his reading of the bloody wars in the Book of Judges, saying with obvious humor, “We can’t lose!” At some point, perhaps at many points, a good and informed Christian conscience admits clearly and openly that our ancient religious texts are a tool, privileged to be sure, but a tool nonetheless to be used for interpretive efforts that contribute to human flourishing. We read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest Scripture in our search for a more humane life and a deeper communion with a hidden ground of love embodied in Christ our Lord. “We can’t lose,” Merton says. Indeed, the strife is over, the battle won. The battlefield is the soul; the enemies are sin, flesh, and the devil. Victory is the defeat of death and the gift of life forevermore.
Another question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9:2-3). Parsing the moral logic here is nearly impossible. Jesus goes on to mix spittle with dirt, a paste that restores the man’s sight. What are we to see in this story? St. Augustine will help: “First they are released and raised up. What follows that light about which we hear: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness? Because the Lord enlightens the blind, we, therefore, are enlightened by the eye-ointment of faith” (Commentary on John, Tract. 34)
The symbol gives rise to thought. Bible stories are often ragged and perplexing, inspiring and disturbing. The reader must slow down and think. There are enemies: sin, the flesh, the devil, disease, abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, cruelty, war. Christ is at work. “The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won” (Hymnal, 208). The victory of life is won! The victory of life is won!
Jesus is the victorious one who releases us, pulls us from the grip of sin and death, and opens our eyes to see what only faith can see. The man born blind who had received his sight said, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). And what do we say? What do we see?
Look It Up
Read Psalm 23.
Think About It
Your questions have not been answered, but your eyes are open.