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Photo by Dan Meyers taken in the West Bank.
Politics of Scripture

Good-Hearted Small People Against Weapons of War

As we reflect on what it means to resist vulnerability and consolidate military power, much could be said in connection to our own political moment. Given the proliferation of weapons of war and the investment in such weaponry by nation-states and stakeholders who see buying shares in war-related machinery and technology as a profitable enterprise, the privileging of a good heart—“the LORD looks on the heart”—is a most urgent political posture.

Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do, and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably. I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely his anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him, for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

1 Samuel 15:30-16:13

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

Referring to the fact that I am over six feet tall, someone once said to me, “You have the right height to enter politics.” I laughed it off. The closest I have come to politics is writing for the Politics of Scripture blog you are now reading. Height privilege is an unfortunate part of our social reality; one we would do well to eschew. Don’t get me wrong. I am not making a case for the annihilation of tall people. People of all heights can be good, bad, and ugly. “Small People” in the essay’s title signals that the directly proportional correlation of height with goodness is ethically suspect. Instead of a preoccupation with ethically suspect “big” people and things, perhaps there is an invitation in the set of texts for this week to pursue “small” things. What would it mean to be good-hearted small people? In considering this question, the essay offers three snapshot responses based on three texts in the week’s lectionary: the rejection of Eliab and the choice of David as the second king of Israel; the distrust of chariots and horses; and the Kingdom of God as a mustard seed.

The biblical witness in this week’s Old Testament reading decidedly warns against being enamored with dominant standards of physical appeal and beauty. Referring to the prophet Samuel’s positive impression of Jesse’s son Eliab, 1 Samuel 16:7 observes, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Samuel is then led by God to choose the youngest of the lot, David who goes on to become the second king of Israel. There is a double-layered plot here because Samuel’s preoccupation with physical stature is somewhat surprising. After all, Saul, the first king of Israel, whom Samuel chose, “stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2), failed. Furthermore, this same Samuel (see 1 Samuel 8:10-18) warned the people against “big” things like monarchies and empires. Samuel knew through actual experience that the correlation of height and other “big things with goodness is suspect. Nevertheless, society’s dominant preoccupations do have a way of persisting in our imaginations, don’t they?

When the people of Israel were physically escaping slavery in Egypt and crossing the barrier of the Red Sea, Pharaoh, not wanting to let go of free labor, pursued them. The Bible records for readers that God saved a weary people fleeing on foot from Pharaoh’s cruel foot soldiers on horses and chariots. This memory informs the lectionary’s Psalm selection that partly reads, “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7). While it is a psalm of praise, it is simultaneously a cautionary tale: “Don’t put your trust in chariots and horses.” “Chariots,” as a term, is often used in military contexts in the Bible and it is often a feature of bigger empires. In other words, inherent in such a claim is a recognition and rejection of dominant preoccupations with “big” things like weapons and empires. The memory recalls Miriam’s original song in Exodus 15:21 celebrating how God stopped the chariots of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Through song, Miriam rejects “big” weapons of war. The antagonism towards confidence in weapons of war—horses and chariots—is a theologically rooted claim. For instance, Deuteronomy 20:1 notes, “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, do not fear them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Society’s dominant preoccupations, however, do have a way of persisting in their collective imagination. As Peter M. Sensenig (76) rightly argues in his essay, “Chariots on Fire,” King Solomon, David’s son, resolutely “decides to have none of his father’s vulnerability, consolidating his reign and building a chariot army of forty thousand horses in 1 Kings 4:26 and twelve thousand horses in 1 Kings 10:26.”

As we reflect on what it means to resist vulnerability and consolidate military power, much could be said in connection to our own political moment. Given the proliferation of weapons of war and the investment in such weaponry by nation-states and stakeholders who see buying shares in war-related machinery and technology as a profitable enterprise, the privileging of a good heart—“the LORD looks on the heart”—is a most urgent political posture.

There is, then, an opposition between good-hearted small people and the “idolatry of giantism” (that memorable phrase from E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, 67) and the preoccupation with “big” things. Sensenig (79) recognizes these tensions when he insightfully highlights that “on the question of the military the United States [which spent nearly as much as the rest of the world combined on military expenditures in 2010] more closely resembles Solomon’s empire than the egalitarian community of Sinai or the eschatological vision of the prophets.” While the US is certainly complicit in ways of empire-building, it is not the only country to pursue “big” things. The young people of the United States and elsewhere thus deeply recognize this as they continue to call for divestment from profitable shares in military machinery and technology. Considering the dynamism inherent in the lectionary readings for the week, the politics of these young people may soundly be seen as theological politics rooted in the Old Testament.

A third and final snapshot that makes the case for good-hearted small people is the description of the Kingdom of God as a mustard seed: “A mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32). For those of us who might be used to putting mustard on hotdogs, perhaps a little tactile excursion into the world of a mustard seed might be worth it. I took some mustard seeds for a children’s activity at church and the children were quite amazed at how small the mustard seed is. So small that it is difficult to take just one seed from a pile and hold it between your fingers.

Nevertheless, here too, everything is not simple and clear. In the history of interpretation, Christians have taken the parable of the mustard seed to be (notice the preoccupation with “big things”) symbolic of Christian missionary expansion. Embedded here is another cautionary tale, I suppose. It might be helpful to ask, what is the outcome of “small” or “big” things? Do such things allow for birds of the air to make nests in their shade, or do they burn and destroy? These are questions for those interested in being good-hearted small people against weapons of war.

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