I Samuel 25
Background to scripture:
Saul was the first King of Israel but he wasn’t a very strong King and after some missteps, God tells the prophet Samuel that God has chosen the young man David to be King instead. Since Saul remains on the throne until his death, we have to assume that God didn’t expect the transfer of power immediately but was talking about succession: instead of the throne passing to Saul’s children after his death, it will pass to David. In the meantime, however, Saul’s and David’s lives are intertwined: David is married to Saul’s daughter Michal and is best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan, and Saul even turns to David’s music to soothe his anxiety and depression. Eventually, however, Saul becomes increasingly uneasy and suspicious about David and decides to assassinate him so David goes into hiding where he gathers followers and becomes a mercenary army for hire. During this period, Saul gives Michal to a new husband providing lots of fodder for debate among later Rabbinical scholars as to whether this was a legal divorce since it was done without David’s consent. There seemed to be little interest in Michal’s feelings on the matter. At any rate, David is living in the wilderness with his band of outlaws and it is during this time that he meets Abigail.
Imagine for a moment that someone has just moved to your neighborhood and they are trying to learn about the people living around them and so they ask you, “What can you tell me about the people who live here?” How would you describe your neighbors to them?
You might identify them by their jobs: “Oh, he’s a professor of numerology” you would say of the neighbor next door, or “She owns the bar in town.” Maybe you would describe them by their eccentric habits, saying: “The woman two doors down has 24 cats and dresses every one of them in a bright red sweater.” Many people, at a certain point in their lives, lose their identity to their offspring and so you might tell the newcomer, “The man who lives across from you has three children who are the best soccer players in the school.” And then there are those few people who stand out for us because of their unusual character, unusual in its degree from which it deviates from the norm: “You’ll want to avoid Ethyl Peabody,” we say, “because she’s the nastiest woman you’ll ever meet,” or “You are so lucky to live next to Earnest Jones because his compassionate heart is the glue that holds this neighborhood together.”
We identify people by their jobs, their habits, their family, or their character; we describe them by whatever it is that most summarizes who they are to us and others.
When the Bible introduces us to a new character, it uses the same approach: “Noah was a righteous man,” it tells us. “Deborah was a prophetess and judge.” In those simple introductory statements, we learn right away how this person relates to others and what is most important to know about them; so when in chapter 25 of I Samuel, we are introduced to a man with the sentence, “There was a man in Maon whose property was in Carmel,” we should take note of the perfect balance of that sentence: a man in Maon whose property was in Carmel. We don’t yet know anything about what is going to happen or what role this man will play in the events about to unfold but in that brief sentence we know exactly what his neighbors think of him: the man is known for what he owns.
“The man was very rich;” the storyteller continues. “He had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats.” We haven’t even been told the man’s name yet but we already know his bank balance: he has property in Carmel, 3000 sheep, and a thousand goats. It is as if a friend introduced you at a party by saying, “Hey, let me introduce you to my friend ‘Filthy Rich.’”
How would it feel to be known not for what you do, not for your personality, not for your family members, nor for your character, but only for what you own?
If we are honest, we might admit that at first, especially if we were introduced as “Mr. or Ms. Filthy Rich,” we’d think that was not such a bad thing. Most of us — most human beings, in fact — have a tendency to value people for what they own. While we 21st century Americans might not care about the number of sheep and goats in someone’s flock, if I were to begin this story with, “There was once a man who owned property in Beverly Hills, and had 5 Mercedes and a Lamborghini,” I know a number of people who would hunker right down in expectant awe ready to hear the tale of this wondrous man of amazing means, and I imagine the Israelites were not much different, but the story-teller does not allow our admiration of this man’s wealth to last long because the story moves quickly to a final piece of important information about this character: “The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. And the name of the man was ‘Fool’!” The antagonist in the story, the man of wealth and property, is named Nabal which in Hebrew means “Fool”. I think it’s unlikely that any Israelite mother would have named her newborn baby “fool” so I’m guessing that the storyteller was assigning this man a symbolic nickname based on the role he was about to play in the story.
“The Fool was surly and mean,” the story continues, “so miserly that one day when David sent word to him asking for food for his men, he refused.”
Nabal’s foolishness is quickly apparent. At this stage in his life, David has yet to rise to the throne of Israel but it’s common knowledge that he aspires to it. He has taken refuge in the wilderness, and gathered an army of loyal men around him in order to protect himself from the wrath of King Saul, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that cultivating David’s favor, especially when he’s camped on your property with 400 armed men, would be a wise move. Nabal, however, doesn’t do those calculations, and is not even swayed by his own workers’ testimony that David’s men were good to them and protected them and Nabal’s property from harm. Instead, the miserly Fool escalates the conflict by sending back an angry retort: “Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?”
The wealthy Nabal is like the man who was asked to donate to a charity and told the solicitor, “Are you aware that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died, a disabled brother who is unable to work, and a widowed sister with small children who can barely make ends meet? If I didn’t give anything to them, what makes you think I would give to you?”
Just as the storyteller impressed us with a list of the immense holdings of Nabal, so now the storyteller also impresses us with the immense meanness of Nabal’s heart. Nabal is, as one punster put it, “so stingy that he checked under the bed every morning to see if he had lost any sleep.”
Nabal may be rich beyond our imaginations but he is also a fool who will be brought down by his blockheaded refusal to practice generosity and grace.
It is at this point that Abigail enters the story. In contrast to her husband, Abigail is not a fool. Maybe Nabal thinks that somehow his bank account will protect him but she can see that David has 400 armed outlaws awaiting his word to ride against her husband, and if her husband will not make peace with David, she will. She doesn’t even bother trying to persuade Nabal to change his mind — she knows her husband is a cantankerous old Scrooge — but instead tells the servants to gather more than enough provisions to feed David’s entire army and then goes to meet David on her own. And for those who heard last week’s sermon, please notice that it is no coincidence that the Bible tells us that when Abigail went to meet David, she rode on the back of a donkey.
Now, I want you to think for a moment about the intestinal fortitude that this act required. While we might say, “You go, girl,” as if Abigail is just showing a little 21st century feminist spunk, in fact, she was probably taking her life into her hands. Abigail didn’t live in 21st century America but in the iron age of Judah where women were little more than property and baby makers to maintain their men’s genetic line. Abigail is deliberately disobeying her husband who we have been told several times is “mean spirited, ill-natured, and tight-fisted.” Abigail must have known that going against Nabal’s command AND giving away his precious goods would be a double offense that was likely to end with his tight fist directed at her face. If that’s not risky enough, she was also walking toward David, a war-Lord with 400 men at his back who would have been in an equally evil temper having been spurned by Nabal. Certainly Abigail’s gesture toward David, then, was not just an act of neighborly kindness as one might have expected from the woman of the house at that time but it was an act of powerful courageous grace that refused to be cowed. Abigail’s offering to David was an act of defiance against her husband’s injustice, selfishness, and greed and it was a declaration that she would put everything on the line to rectify that wrong and save her husband’s servants and his home from his own foolishness.
Ordinary kindness was not enough here. In the face of her husband’s extraordinary meanness, the only remedy was extraordinary grace.
It is common for us to think of grace as a sort of kindness toward others, a sympathetic compassion that helps a neighbor in need, a smile of friendliness toward the stranger. If we say, “She is such a person of grace,” we probably mean that the person we are describing is someone who would never utter an unkind word and who is someone you can count on in times of trouble. In our brutal world, such ordinary kindness does feel like grace but true grace is much deeper than that. True grace is a compassion toward others that refuses to stop no matter how many forces are arrayed against it. True grace is a generosity that risks not only the loss of a few possessions but risks one’s own well-being for the sake of others. Grace is at its least kindness but at its greatest and most powerful it is the demonstration of a mercy so focused on the needs of others, so willing to give everything for the people on whom it is bestowed, that even the possibility of death will not stop it. Kindness is the social glue that we use to keep our worlds running smoothly but grace is a love so bold and determined that it will go all the way to the cross for us, where the earth will quake and the world will be turned upside down so that we can experience a new creation.
As Christians, we don’t talk about Christ’s death for us as an act of kindness because we know that his willingness to challenge the authorities and practice radical mercy toward others even though it would lead to his death was not ordinary kindness. It wasn’t like Jesus was changing a flat tire for us. We say, “He died for us so that we might live,” because grace — true grace — puts everything on the line in order to bring us the good news that the extraordinary cruelty of the world — the miserly meanness of it all — doesn’t have to be the only way. Jesus was willing to go all the way to the cross for us, to loose the chains of our hearts so that our old way of living in sin and fear would be ended and we would rise to a new way of living in trust and hope. As ones who have experienced such profound grace in Christ, we have been given the means to stand up to the forces of foolishness and to refuse to accept the world’s assumption that the only way to conquer brutality is through more brutality. Christ has demonstrated most powerfully that there is another way: we can conquer brutality by meeting hatred with compassion, by challenging greed with generosity, and by bridging the isolation wrought by fear with a hand extended in peace.
In the book “Unfollow,” Megan Phelps-Roper gives an account of her life growing up in Westboro Baptist Church, a small family based church that became infamous for its ugly hate-filled protests against homosexuality. The church taught that God hated the US for enacting laws supporting gay marriage, and anyone who served this country was equally hated by God. From an early age, Phelps-Ropers said, “[I went with my church to protest at the funerals of soldiers killed in action.] We held signs that said, ‘Thank God for dead soldiers.’ ‘Thank God for IEDs.’ ‘God hates you.’” When Phelps-Rogers was old enough, she started a Twitter account as a means to persuade more people of the church’s perverse doctrine and, as you can imagine, she was pummeled verbally by detractors who responded to her hateful posts with hate-filled posts directed at her. She said, however, that there were a few people who didn’t return hate for hate but instead patiently and persistently tried to engage her in a more human way. They approached her with “curiosity and humor,” discussed interpretation of scripture with her, gently pointed out inconsistencies in her beliefs, and asked questions that made her re-think her assumptions.
The grace that she experienced in those rare tweets opened her mind and her heart. She said,, “[I began to think,] If the church was wrong about all those things, what else were we wrong about? The question felt like an iron key sliding into the lock of a long-sealed door.” In 2012, she finally left the Westboro Baptist Church and has spent the years since building a new life and a new belief system that is based not on the divisions of “us and them” but that reaches out to those with whom we disagree in compassion and openness insisting on learning from one another and replacing hate with love. (1)
The extraordinary foolishness and meanness of Nabal was countered by the extraordinary generosity and grace of Abigail, and grace was victorious. Nabal’s miserly heart would turn to stone a few days later, killing him as he slept. David’s heart would turn to love and he would take Abigail as a wife. And one day, the house of David would give birth to the man Jesus, who would go all the way to the cross for us to demonstrate the power of courageous grace and its ability to burst the bonds of hate’s prison and free us all to a new way of living in love together.