By Amber Noel
A Reading from 1 Samuel 21:1-15
1 David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” 2 David said to the priest Ahimelech, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, ‘No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. 3 Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” 4 The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread — provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.” 5 David answered the priest, “Indeed, women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” 6 So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
7 Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord; his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds.
8 David said to Ahimelech, “Is there no spear or sword here with you? I did not bring my sword or my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” 9 The priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the valley of Elah, is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod; if you will take that, take it, for there is none here except that one.” David said, “There is none like it; give it to me.”
10 David rose and fled that day from Saul; he went to King Achish of Gath. 11 The servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances,
‘Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands’?”
12 David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of King Achish of Gath. 13 So he changed his behavior before them; he pretended to be mad when in their presence. He scratched marks on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle run down his beard. 14 Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is mad; why then have you brought him to me? 15 Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?”
We have seen David’s valor, his innocence before Saul; we had not yet seen, until now, his ability to be crafty. This David shape-shifts. He tells folks what they need to hear. From that, he scores five loaves of holy bread, a giant sword, and maybe a cohort, and ensures his safety by flawlessly acting, in front of the right people, like he’s got a few screws loose.
David is “a man after God’s own heart”; he also knows how to work a room. When it comes to being “wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove,” we could debate on when and where God’s people draw the line at outright lying. And if the purpose of our planning, politicking, cocktail parties, winning friends, and influencing people amounts only to preservation of ourselves and our agendas, then perhaps the dove has flown.
But the wisdom of the serpent — which is the knowledge of deftly navigating this world of mixed good and evil, slithering skillfully among wheat and tares — becomes sanctified and most powerful for the kingdom only when driven by a pure heart, and when the results and methods are dedicated to God. This means there may also come times to give up the game, let the dove win, and look foolish in the eyes of the world.
Purity of heart doesn’t mean less complexity, or even that ambiguity in relationships and circumstances disappear, but that God teaches us to carry faithfully in dim light and darkness what will one day — on a more appropriate day — be shouted from the rooftops. It’s not always time to be obvious, to forcefully blaze the trail to God’s purpose. Lord knows things are complicated. But whatever your skills in “working the room,” God wants to make your heart absolutely clean and guileless. The most subtle navigation needs a straight and true compass, whatever your landscape, whatever your present mission.
Amber Noel, M.Div., is Associate Editor at the Living Church and Associate Director of The Living Church Institute. Off the clock, she is the author of short fiction, book and culture reviews, and work for the stage.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Central Florida
St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, Tenn.