Let the Scriptures Speak
“Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp,
I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.”
David as teacher of nonviolence? In the full flush of his power as king, David will show himself capable of murder in the service of lust. Desiring the "very beautiful" Bathsheba, he will arrange for her husband, Uriah, to die in combat. But the writer of the royal history takes delight in showing that this same man is capable of remarkable acts of what we today have learned to call creative (even playful) nonviolence.
Two stunning examples of this behavior occur during Saul's search-and-destroy mission against the pre-monarchic David. The first happens while David is hiding in a cave at Engedi. When Saul enters that cave to relieve himself, David sneaks up behind him and cuts off the end of his mantle. Then David reveals himself to his would-be killer, letting Saul know that he had refrained from taking advantage of his vulnerability: “Since I cut off an end of your mantle and did not kill you, see and be convinced that I plan no harm and no rebellion I have done you no wrong, though you are hunting me down to take my life. The Lord will judge between me and you.”
We find a similar example in today's First Reading. Saul continues his pursuit of David into the desert of Ziph. One night David and Abishai are able to steal into Saul's barricade to the place where the king and his general are sleeping David declines Abishai’s offer to nail Saul to the ground “with one thrust of the spear.” Instead, he delicately refrains from harming his enemy and makes off with the king’s spear and water jug. From a safe distance, David taunts Abner and Saul and shames the king into a change of heart.
Charmed and perhaps even inspired by these nonviolent strategies of David, we come to the Gospel passage, the core of Luke's Sermon on the Plain, with fresh ears. What David did occasionally as a clever ploy, Jesus of Nazareth expands into a way of life. Non-violence sits at the heart of Jesus' teaching
There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke understood it that way Matthew, in his presentation of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, places the sayings about nonviolence and love of enemies as the climactic elements of the famous six antitheses of Chapter Five. In his much shorter version of that sermon, Luke gives love of enemies an even higher profile; he places the mandates of enemy love and nonviolence immediately after the Beatitudes and Woes. Six verses later, Luke rounds off that passage by repeating the mandate
When it comes to the motivation forr nonviolence, David and Jesus have more in common than may at first be apparent David's moves are more than crafty strategies of self-protection He deals with his enemy as a fellow human being under the judgment of God (“Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord's anointed.”) And when Jesus of Nazareth commands nonviolence and love of enemies, he urges as his rationale nothing less than the imitation of God' (“You will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”) . This sums up a rationale spelled out more completely in Matthew's version (Mt 5:45):
But I say to you, love your enemies that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” In other words, be as inclusive in your benevolence as the Creator.
Where Matthew summaizes this attitude as a matter of perfection—“Be perfect just as yom heavenly Father is perfect.” Luke records the more appealing (and, scholars think, the more original) version of the saying: “Be merciful just as yom Father is merciful.” The word translated “merciful” is a rare word, oiktirmos, used only here in the Gospels (and, elsewhere in the New Testament, only at James 5:11, where the author is echoing such Old Testament characterizations of God as Ex. 34:6 and Ps. 103:8). The term refers to the covenant love of the Creation of all We who claim to know God in that way are mandated to extend that mercy to all.
Christian love of enemies, and consequent nonviolence, is not something we do simply by willing it; it springs from a relationship with God and the covenant community. And yet it is a mandate.
A question to ponder: The two Gospel sermons presenting the inaugural teaching of Jesus make nonviolence and love of enemies central to that teaching. Why has our Christian teaching and practice been so slow to recognize this? To make it concrete, which is closest to the teaching of Jesus: the death penalty or life imprisonment without possibility of parole?
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University