One thing that I find so inspiring in South Africa are the countless people who do and participate in miraculous activities day-in-and-day-out as they strive to make their community better. In working for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa, my wife and I have the honour of meeting different people all around the country and listen to the different ways these people, these normal people, do extraordinary things; often risking their own comfort, their own well-being, and their own security in order to help others. They demonstrate day-in-and-day-out an alternative way of being; a way of being that seeks the well-fair of someone else over their own; a way of being that serves others rather than themselves; a way of being that strives towards peace and justice, not just for themselves but for everyone. It is a different way of living.
Why do I say that this is a different way to live or a different way of being? I say this partly because we are regularly encouraged to focus on ourselves, our own well being, and our own happiness, rather than on someone else. We see this regularly portrayed in T.V. commercials where happiness and success is depicted as getting the keys to the car we always wanted, growing one’s business in order to afford the luxurious life, where bigger is better, where success means power, where power means influence, and where influence means progress. The focus tends to be on the self: securing one’s own success, power, and influence.
Throughout the Bible, however, we find God embodying and asking us to embody a different method, one that challenges the assumption that success, influence, and power is gained by focusing on oneself. In fact, God’s method often turns these assumptions upside-down.
In I Samuel 16:1-13 we find Samuel being instructed by the Lord to go to the house of Jesse because God has chosen a king from among Jesse’s sons. Samuel, although scared that Saul, the king that is being replaced and rejected, will retaliate, goes to find this king that God has chosen from within Jesse’s household. Jesse, although not sure whether Samuel comes in peace, welcomes Samuel into his home. The purpose of Samuel’s visit, it is made clear, is to find the one whom God has chosen as the next king and to anoint him.
Jesse begins by bringing the one who would be the most obvious choice – his eldest son who is presumably a tall, handsome young man—a description that is strikingly similar to that of Saul (1 Sam. 9:2), the previous king who is being rejected. Samuel is told, however, not to look at the young man’s appearance as the Lord has rejected him; the Lord is moving away from the Saul type.
In response, Jesse then brings the second eldest son, the next likely. But he too is not the one who God has chosen. Jesse then brings the third, then the fourth, and eventually the rest of his sons—all seven of them. None of them, however, is the one whom God has chosen.
Samuel asks Jesse whether these seven sons, incidentally the number of sons an ideal family should have (Tsumura, 420), are all the sons Jesse has? Jesse admits that there is one more – the one who is tending the flock of sheep; the eighth son, the youngest son.* This is the one! The eighth son, the youngest; this is the one! God tells Samuel. “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!” (1 Sam. 16:12).
Everything points away from David as being the logical choice. He was the youngest and presumably smaller. Yet it was David that Samuel wanted to meet. And it was David who Samuel anointed.
It’s important to pay attention to this act of anointing. There is a lot of meaning that goes along with anointing. Being anointed can serve as a sign of being set aside for a divinely chosen task (Tsumura, 274). It can also mark the transition in status (Tsumura, 274). David was anointed 3 times in his life: 1) by Samuel in Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16: 1-13), 2) by the men of Judah to be king over the house of Judah (2 Sam. 2:4), and 3) by the elders of Israel to be a king over Israel (2 Sam. 5:3).
In Israel, the act of anointing was also first and foremost a royal rite – an act of being anointed as king. The king was the anointed one, or messiah. This is what “messiah” literally means – “the anointed one.”
And so we are told that David, through the act of getting anointed by Samuel, has been set aside for a divinely appointed task. A transition in status has been marked, and his anointing serves as foreshadowing as to when he will become king. God told Samuel, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the One!” This One was the unlikeliest of people! This One was someone who most would not think twice about! It was the One who was not the most powerful, nor the logical choice.
“Arise, anoint him; for this is the One!” In having Samuel anoint David, God turns common sense and logic upside-down. We see a glimpse of God’s alternative method.
In John 9: 1-34, we find another interesting story that reveals God’s alternative method. In this story we read how Jesus heals a man who was born blind. This story begins with a theological question – who was it that sinned that made this beggar blind, him or his parents? The answer—neither. Jesus tells us that he was born blind so that “the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3). Jesus then, out of his own volition, without being asked, heals this poor man. This act is significant in that it demonstrates Jesus’ concern about the physical well being of others. The way Jesus heals the man is also quite interesting.
In this story we are told that Jesus makes clay from dirt and his saliva and anoints the eyes of the blind man (v. 6, 11). The creation of this clay is most often interpreted as a way of preparing medicine as it was believed that saliva had medicinal properties. It is this act of creating medicine which breaks the Sabbath law. It is because of this act that the Pharisees sought to punish Jesus.
This act, however, serves a dual purpose. The anointing of the man’s eye could also be making the statement that this man is being set aside for a divinely appointed task. As we are told later in the story, this man, in response to being healed, challenges the Pharisees, the ones who are in power, the powers that be, that their interpretation of the law and their understanding of the identity of Jesus are incorrect. This act of rebellion gets the beggar thrown out of the synagogue!
We once again find an unlikely person providing us with an example as to God’s alternative method and intention. We find someone who defies logic; someone who would not be the obvious choice. We encounter a beggar, a poor man, who is anointed and set aside for a divinely appointed task. It is this beggar, this poor man, who challenges the powers that be as he is the one who understands what it means to see the true light of the world. We learn from someone who most would simply ignore as to what it means to participate in the revolutionary act of declaring Jesus as the anointed one, as the Messiah!
We learn, however, that the consequences for declaring Jesus as the Christ can be severe. In this case the beggar is thrown out of the synagogue, a penalty that was quite severe in those day as the synagogue was the centre of community life. We are not told whether this man declares Jesus as the Christ, but we are told that the Pharisees throw him out of the synagogue—the consequence for declaring Jesus as the Christ (v. 22). This beggar was obviously making the ones in power uncomfortable enough that they decided to throw him out of the synagogue.
This story raises some questions for us. How do we participate in this alternative, logic defying, revolutionary story? Do we recognize the faithful responses to God’s will, responses that sometimes look terribly ineffective? Or do we write them off exactly as that – ineffective? Are we willing to participate in counter-cultural activities, recognizing that we may stand out? Are we willing, like the beggar, to call into question the very nature of power as it stands, which takes advantage of the poor, which benefits only a few, and declare that someone else is Lord, that someone else is the true light, that someone else is the anointed one and worthy of worship? How do we participate in or align ourselves with this alternative understanding of power?
These are challenging questions that can, I hope, cause us to think and revisit how we participate in God’s alternative method. My hope is that we can be challenged by them as we continue to wrestle as to how to walk faithfully as children of the one true light and as witnesses to this alternative way of being – a way of being where the powers have been overcome by the cross, not the sword; a way of being where the poor are the ones who are blessed; a way of being where we are called to serve others rather than to rule over others; a way of being where peace shall reign, not war.
May we continue to strive to be faithful to this alternative way of being.
*The account in 1 Samuel as to the number of sons Jesse has differs from the account found in 1 Chronicles 2:15 where David is depicted as the seventh son.
David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).
(Andrew Suderman is a Mennonite Church Canada worker in South Africa and is the Director of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa. Check out this and other columns in their Alternative News. This was a sermon that was prepared for St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, delivered on April 3, 2011.)