Now there was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker. - II Samuel 3:1
The story of David is a classic one. It is a little confused in places, true, but the main outlines are clear and appealing. David is the winsome young man from a very ordinary family who finds himself chosen for greatness and thrust on the stage of national concerns. He accepts the Lond¡¯s decision to anoint him as king even while Saul is on the throne, but scrupulously avoids using divine favor for his personal advancement. When Saul persecutes him, he refuses to respond in kind. When Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle with the Philistines, David mourns them. He accepts kingship over the southern tribes, but does not challenge the son of Saul who has become king over the northern tribes. Only when the northern tribes come to him and ask him to be their king does he accept. Then under his leadership, the new nation reaches new heights of prosperity and security, the greatness promised centuries ago to Abram.
Our text summarizes very briefly a very strenuous part of this story. It comes from the time after Saul¡¯s death, but before the two kingdoms had reunited under David. In a sense, it epitomizes a very familiar situation, the difficulty of letting go of familiar leadership in order to make room for better leadership. In Hamlet¡¯s soliloquy on suicide, Shakespeare speaks of the dread that ¡° . . . makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of.¡± One advantage the incumbent has is that we know--or think we know--what to expect, even though we may not like it. It seems risky to trust a relative unknown.
Our theology urges us to look at this same principle on a deeper level. It says that something parallel to this is trying to happen within us, that we ourselves are being called to accept a higher leadership. To put it as bluntly as possible, we are called to let go of the principles we have been living by and to give our allegiance to deeper principles. This goes against the grain, because we have become attached to our principles. We feel as though we have a lot invested in them. They are very much a part of who we are.
All this, so far, is probably too generalized to be very intelligible. Fortunately, our theology enables us to be more specific about this particular transition. It suggests that the Biblical story pictures a change from external, behavioral standards to deeper, more spiritual standards. This means looking not simply at what we have chosen to do, but at why we have chosen it.
Let¡¯s take an example. A strictly behavioral standard might be, ¡°I will always tell the truth.¡± Then we find ourselves in situations where common courtesy and consideration for the feelings of others present us with a dilemma. A friend of mine, for example, was invited to an informal exhibit of the amateur paintings of an acquaintance. In fact, she thought the paintings were pretty awful, but that the painter was a very dear and sensitive person. She found a way not to tell any actual lies by talking about the enjoyment of painting as a hobby, but by no stretch of the imagination could one say that she had told the truth about her reactions to the paintings themselves.
Students of ethics like to talk about the ¡°slippery slope.¡± This instance seems quite straightforward. There is no need to hurt someone¡¯s feelings simply in order to voice one¡¯s own opinion, even though that opinion may be very accurate and well-informed. But if we make an exception to truth-telling in this case, where will we stop? Suppose, for example, that the painter had asked bluntly for an opinion. Suppose the painter had wanted to sell some paintings, and wanted advice on their value? We could probably think of all kinds of shadings of the situation that would make suppression of the truth seem gradually less and less defensible. Where would we draw the line? It is certainly much easier to say simply, ¡°I will always tell the truth.¡±
It is easier, but it is not necessarily more responsible. One of the classic examples from ethics textbooks is the situation where an enraged man with a gun demands to know where he can find the person he has just been arguing with. This particular situation is about as unlikely as it could be, but we have all had the awful feeling that someone wanted information from us in order to use it to hurt someone else. In that sense, truth is like any other valuable thing. It is to be cared for and used responsibly, and not necessarily to be given to everyone who asks for it.
The difficulty is, though, that we cannot let go of the external principle unless we have something else to turn to. Once we recognize that there are situations when we should withhold the truth, we need standards that will help us discern when this is in fact the best course of action to take. Otherwise, we will wind up just doing what happens to feel best at the time, and that may be governed more by concern for our own convenience than by ethical principles.
It may help at this point to go back to our Biblical image for a moment. Saul had been chosen because of his physical strength, and the main gift of leadership he brought to the people was apparently his physical courage. His weakness was his insensitivity to the deeper dimensions of life. He could not really believe that he should sacrifice all the booty to the Lord, or that he should wait for divine guidance before going into battle. He simply saw what was right in front of him, and took it at face value. There were good guys and bad guys in the world, and he was out to get the bad guys.
David came at things from a very different perspective, according to the story. Perhaps the primary difference was that he seems to have assumed that the Lord was at work in every situation, and that he himself, David, did not necessarily know exactly what the Lord was up to. Time after time, he was content to let things happen, when Saul would try to make things happen. This does not mean he was strictly passive, though. He would definitely do what he believed to be the Lord¡¯s will, and with very few exceptions, would not do what he believed was against the Lord¡¯s will. Having acted on these principles, though, he would leavea the results in the Lord¡¯s hands, and stood ready to have his own expectations contradicted.
This difference between Saul and David is very much like the difference we are intended to recognize in our individual lives. At first, we need strong and even rigid behavioral principles to keep us on track. There are times, especially early in life, when we need to follow the rules without asking why. But if we do this faithfully, things change. Good moral behavior becomes habitual. In Swedenborgian terms, the moral foundation has laid on which a spiritual life can be built.
Often as not, the first step toward that building is our asking the question we have not dared to ask before--¡±Why?¡± Why should we tell the truth? Is it just because someone told us to, just because we have accepted a commandment? Or can we begin to see that this is not just an arbitrary rule designed to make things difficult for us, but is, in a sense, a guidepost for the path to a heavenly life? It is not designed to make us feel superior to others, but to train us to be honest with ourselves so that we can form trustworthy relationships with each other.
At first, it may seem as though we are abandoning our principles if we want to know why before we obey the rules. The fact is, though, that the inner principles, the ones that are closer to the underlying reasons, are much more strict than the behavioral ones. We not only do not want to lie, we do not want to mislead or to hurt in any way. In our communications, we are asking hard questions of ouselves, admitting that we do not have all the answers. We are concerned not only with what comes out of our mouth, but with how it will be heard.
At the heart of this is exactly the same awareness we found attributed to David. That is, we are beginning to realize that the Lord is at work in ways we may not imagine or suspect. We are hesitant to take decisive action until we have some inkling of what the Lord is up to. We make our decisions and take our actions with a new kind of humility, saying, in effect, ¡°This is the best I can do. I hope it is good enough, and am ready to be shown how it could be improved.¡±
In Gospel terms, we have begun the cleansing of the inside of the cup and the platter. Our outward behavior is the outside, and moral rules will do a fairly good job of keeping that clean. Unless we look inside, though, the more moral we are the more self-righteous we will be.
Again, the Lords message is clear. ¡°You have neglected the weightier matters of the law--judgment, mercy, and faith. This is what you should have done, without leaving the rest undone.¡± That is, we are not to abandon our watchfulness over our outward behavior. The commandments still hold. But the commandments basically forbid various ways in which we tend to hurt each other. Within the range of activities which the commandments allow, there is a much narrower range of activities by which we may actually bring healing and blessing into each other¡¯s lives.
In a way, there are no rigid rules that tell us how this must be done. We must listen carefully to each other, trying to understand just what is needed. We ourselves must become willing to admit our own needs, and here again the critical element is our recognition of the Lord¡¯s presence in and around us. As long as we cherish the illusion that we are self-sufficient, or even the illusion that we are supposed to be, the law can only be a tyrant, not a guide, and certainly not a friend.
Risky as it is, we can say that ¡°the rules¡± are a crutch--absolutely necessary to get us to the point where we can begin to see principles. Then we find ourselves with a new freedom--not a freedom from the rules, but a freedom within them. We begin to see, in fact, that the rules are themselves expressions of the Lord¡¯s love for us, of the Lord¡¯s care to protect us from ourselves, and we become capable of cooperating with that love iin ways we never know existed.