1 Samuel 17: 1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49 & Mark 4:35-41

God stands with the vulnerable – a reflection by Dan Spragg

David and Goliath! A story we love. We loved this story as children and we love it for our own young people. The little guy takes down the bully. As New Zealanders we love this story. Us in our little place here at the bottom of the world – of course we should expect to be able to take on the giants in our world – of course we can expect to punch above our weight. This story of the underdog bringing down the giant, it is a good story! This story links in and highlights a general theme in the Scriptures too. A broader biblical theme of God being on the side of the weak, the vulnerable, the small. God stands in solidarity with those who are oppressed. The losers of this world are the ones who are blessed as Jesus says – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek… (Matthew 5 – Sermon on the Mount). This characteristic of God has been championed by what’s known as ‘Liberation Theology’. Born in Latin America in the 1960’s as a moral reaction to the oppression of the poor.  Liberation theology has sought to promote both in theory and practice what’s known as ‘God’s preferential option for the poor.’ God stands in solidarity with those who are vulnerable. The story of David and Goliath has given hope to this cause for thousands of years. What if, however, this story also shows us a deeper layer to that truth?

The author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell has written at length about the story of David and Goliath. His TED talk on the story is worth a watch.[1] He shares how the classic understanding of David as the underdog and Goliath as the all powerful opponent may not be entirely accurate. David uses a sling as his weapon of choice, not a slingshot, but a sling. Gladwell talks of how the sling was used in ancient warfare with skill and precision. These marksmen were able to hit moving targets up to 200 yards and fire the stones from their slings with the power and velocity of a 45mm handgun. This was how David protected his flocks of sheep from lions and wolves and other prey. Gladwell emphasises how David was not simply a young boy with a toy slingshot who had a lucky shot but rather how he was highly skilled in the use of a deadly weapon. Gladwell also talks of how medical professionals have been debating for years as to what Goliath’s condition was. The most commonly held belief is that Goliath suffered from ‘Gigantism’ or ‘Acromegaly’ which is when a tumor on the pituitary gland produces extra human growth hormone. One side effect is large size and another is that those who suffer from Acromegaly usually have affected eyesight – often severe short sightedness and double vision. So, it is obvious that Goliath would win in close hand to hand combat – he would simply overpower his opponent, but this was his only move. His shield bearer led him out to the place of combat and he thinks David is coming at him with sticks because he simply can’t see what is going on all that well. Goliath may have been a large and powerful fighter but when the fight changed to that of a different kind, he had no hope. Was David really the underdog? Perhaps Goliath was actually the vulnerable opponent in this situation? David in a sense was always going to win because he was highly skilled but in a different type of combat. David’s different approach to the traditional set up was also what ensured he was always going to win.

The preacher and theologian William Willamon shares another story of how a ‘giant’ was defeated. In a preaching resource written in 1994 he writes:

A few years ago a person I know returned from a trip to the Soviet Union announcing, “There is nobody in the churches except for little old ladies.” Losers! After the events of the past few years, we are better able to assess the significance of those believing little old ladies. As things turned out, those little old ladies knew more about what’s what than the folk at the Kremlin or the University of Moscow. Mr. Lenin is gone. Mr. Gorbachev is gone. The little old ladies won. What happened between 1918 and 1991? In his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel revealed the vulnerability of the communist project. Havel says that communism depended upon massive popular acquiescence. Not enough people were willing to say, No! Too many were willing to make these innumerable, everyday gestures of consent by which a brutal system reinforced its image as an immutable, eternally ordained monolith. The monolith began to crumble with the quiet, unspectacular, grassroots withdrawal of consent. Ordinary people, little people, people whom the world would call “losers,” in dozens of ordinary places, simply refused to participate in the communist lies. They refused to play by the rules of a silly game laid upon their backs by the powerful. Havel asks, from whence came this newfound courage to resist, to say “No” to a massive, time-honoured tradition of consent? The courage to resist was largely religious in origin. The courage to say “No” came from a “Yes” that transcended and dethroned the tyranny of the political. In case you’re keeping score, its little old ladies, 1, Lenin, Stalin, etc., 0.[2]

There is something in Gladwell’s take on David and Goliath and in this powerful movement from the margins of Russia which I believe shows us something. There is a popular saying used when solving problems. ‘You need to think outside the box.’ Sometimes though, I wonder, if you find yourself always having to think outside the box, maybe you need a new box? Perhaps the box itself is part of the problem. The communist giant was never going to be beaten on its own terms, a new frame of reference was needed. David was never going to beat Goliath in hand to hand combat, a different approach was needed. Sometimes you don’t just need to think outside the box, you actually need to change the game.

Where is God in all this? The biblical theme of God standing with the underdog remains true. God is on the side of the vulnerable – always. A question I have is, is victory always a sign of God’s presence? It’s probably not as clear cut as that – what is God to do when both sides are praying for victory?! God stands with the vulnerable. We are all vulnerable. Giants too. It may not be as clear cut as size and power vs small and weak. I believe that God being on the side of the vulnerable means that God will meet us in our vulnerability whoever and wherever we are. Jesus calmed the storm making real this promise of God with us but we have to be willing to open up and admit where we need help, where we are weak, we have to be vulnerable to invite God to calm the storm. In the case of Giants and Bullies they no doubt, perhaps especially them, have storms that need calming – maybe God could be at work in the life of these as well? We have to believe that is true otherwise what does the concept of redemption mean? Jesus of course ‘changed the box.’ Jesus reframed and turned on its head the expected order of things where power lay in the hands of force and coercion and in this he revealed God. Jesus showed us that God is in this new way of vulnerability, of laying down our defences. This is the God we follow. This is the way of life that is called ‘eternal’. This is what we are invited into.

The story of David and Goliath shows us that yes, God is on the side of the vulnerable, the small, the weak. And it shows us that sometimes in order to get a good outcome the ‘box’ needs to be changed, a new angle is needed, a different way is required. But it also shows us that identifying the vulnerable ones may not always be clear cut or apparent at first glance. Part of the new way that Jesus shows us is exactly this. The expected order of things has been turned over and shaken about. There are storms that need to be calmed in many places, there are many vulnerable places within all of us and wherever they are this is where God will be standing in solidarity. When we are open and willing to go down the different path, this place is where the real giants will be defeated.

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_the_unheard_story_of_david_and_goliath?language=en

[2] William H. Williamon, ‘God of the Losers’, in, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1994, p50