Fourth Sunday in Lent

Leaders who embrace their vulnerability as a source of strength

person holding a glass amber bottle dripping oil into her hand
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

March 19, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaks a powerful word about the painful aftereffects of the failure of leadership. In verse 1, God admonishes Samuel, asking him how long he will grieve about Saul. The reference to grief signifies sorrow, the deep disappointment of what could have been. Indeed, there were such high expectations for Saul. Though right from the start, Samuel warned the people about the dark side of having a king rule over them (1 Samuel 8), giving numerous examples of what kings could do when they get their hands on power. The fact that Samuel fears for his life when God asks him to anoint Saul’s successor (verse 2) serves as a case in point of the failure of Saul as king, which moreover is evident in the cost of war upon war, and the stark divisions rampant in the young nation.

God’s position is clear. In the harshest possible terms, God asserts that God has rejected, or one could say, scorned or disavowed God’s former leader. No leader, no matter how mighty he or she thinks they are, is immune to losing their position of power and influence. Instead, God calls upon Samuel to take heart and to do what prophets are supposed to do: anoint whom God had selected. God even offers some helpful suggestions on how Samuel can do this without attracting the soon-to-be former king’s attention (see also in verses 2-3 the elaborate scheme of pretending to go sacrifice, as well as also the fearful response of the elders of the community that attests to the reign of terror Saul’s kingship had become). From the divine response, it is clear that despite the recent failure of leadership, God and also Samuel (and we) should not give up hope in finding leaders who can lead.

This week’s lectionary reading moreover reveals some surprising insights into leadership. For one, the chosen one (the anointed one) is not whom one would expect it to be. It is not the oldest of Jesse’s sons, not even the second in line, nor one of the seven sons who in quite dramatic fashion are paraded before Samuel but found not to be the chosen one.

When Samuel, rather despondently asks whether there is no one else, Jesse finally remembers David, the eighth son, and youngest of his brothers. This king-to-be is also not the one with the most imposing stature, nor one who looks like a king in terms of societal norms (verse 7). Samuel reminds the people: “God does not see as humans see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (verse 8).

The narrator further divulges that David is “ruddy,” in other words, reddish of color (verse 12); a shepherd boy (verse 11) who most likely, like shepherds in that time, was found in the fields and looked down upon and even viewed with contempt. David, as an unlikely character for a leadership position, is later confirmed in 1 Samuel 22:2 when David finds himself on the margins of society, together with the rabble-rousers, the malcontents, and the disenfranchised. We read, “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.” Here on the fringes of society is the next leader of Judah to be found—a worthy predecessor for the Messiah who will be born in a manger and whose first visitors are the shepherds who were outside in the field (Luke 2:8-20). And yet this least valued of Jesse’s sons, a mere shepherd boy who was not even invited to the grand reveal of the next king and the ensuing anointment ritual, is recognized and included by Samuel. In verse 16, Samuel insists that David be called: “for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The narrator’s comment in 1 Samuel 16:12 that David has beautiful eyes and that he is pleasant on the eye (handsome or, even better, “good-looking”) is, furthermore, quite an interesting observation by the narrator. It is telling that he is not celebrating David’s physical strength, his military might, or his ability to speak well, which are the typical qualities associated with the (male) leadership ideal of the time. Instead, he highlights different attributes in a leader, which echoes God’s earlier statement that God’s idea of a leader is different than that of the people. It is interesting to note that this unlikely leader, not the epitome of masculinity and strength, will outwit a giant with five pebbles (1 Samuel 17:40-50).

The theme of the unlikely leader is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Moses stutters (Exodus 4:13-14), he has blood on his hands (Exodus 2:11-14), and his face is said to shine after his encounter with the Divine (Exodus 34:29). Also, in the book of Judges, one finds numerous unlikely leaders as evident in the left-handed Ehud (Judges 3), Deborah who leads the people despite being a woman (Judges 4), and Jephthah who is the son of a prostitute (Judges 11). Moreover, the suffering servant in Isaiah 42:1-7 (see also Isaiah 52:13—53:12), who is described as “a bruised reed” and “a dimly burning wick,” attests to the fact that God’s power is revealed through vulnerable leaders who embrace their vulnerability as a source of strength. Significantly, this week’s lectionary text ends with the reference that the spirit of God “came mightily” (New Revised Standard Version) upon David from that day onwards—just as the spirit in the next pericope departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14 and forward).

This line of thinking also helps us consider where the center of power lies in our own contexts and whether authentic leadership does not come from the margins and other unexpected places. Indeed, the king is judged by his ability to live up to what Psalm 72 imagined to be the ideal king. Whether leaders succeed or fail ultimately goes back to whether they may rule in justice, which includes defending the cause of the poor, delivering the needy, and upending the oppressor (Psalm 72:2-5).