There are some obvious advantages to being born male in this world, specifically in regard to the educational and professional opportunities that a woman still finds shut off to her in many parts of the world. But there are disadvantages to be found in being born male as well which can easily be overlooked because part of the burden of being male is the shame we feel in talking about the experience of feeling as though we don’t measure up. The story of David and Goliath calls attention to some of the burdens that fall disproportionately to men.
The armies of the Israelites and Philistines — comprised exclusively of men — are faced off, preparing for battle. Goliath, the nine foot champion of the Philistines, steps forward to put forth a dare: Instead of having the armies battle, let a Israelite warrior come forth to fight on behalf of his people. Goliath and the Israelite champion will fight one on one — man to man.
In face of the overwhelming size and strength of Goliath, there is no Israelite man willing to step forth. For days on end Goliath steps forth to taunt the Israelites, “Bring me a man!” he sneers. The implication is clear: the Israelites are all a bunch of wussy boys. They have no balls.
Here is the choice the Israelite men seem to have: feel woefully inadequate in regard to their masculinity, or be killed. It is a choice I think most men can identify with in the course of their lives.
Out of nowhere comes the boy/man David. He is inspired to accept the giant’s challenge. In one daring act, David permanently solidifies his place in hero mythology, becoming the poster boy of manliness and fearlessness. Three thousand years later, sports announcers still refer to “David and Goliath” whenever the underdog attempts to unseat the heavily favored opponent.
There are some subtleties to this story that are often overlooked that I noticed as I read it in context. Prior to the events described, we are told that king Saul was prone to bouts of depression. Someone suggests that music might be soothing to his soul at such times. It turns out that the young David is a gifted harpist, and so he is brought to Saul to play for him. His music becomes the medicine by which Saul finds relief from his depression.
A music-playing soother of depressed souls certainly stretches our stereotypical image of masculinity.
I also noticed as I re-read the story that unlike the older male soldiers in the Israelite army, David is able to act because he is free from the burden of having a reputation to defend. His reaction is spontaneous, not calculated on the basis of, “I’d better act here or everyone is going to think of me as wimp.” He is, after all, just a shepherd boy, not someone from whom anybody expects the “great masculine act” of slaying the giant. Rather than a compulsive act required to prove himself, David’s action comes in response to the movement of the Spirit.
The third thing I noticed is that David manifests ingenuity rather than stupidity. Oftentimes in our culture masculinity can often be associated with stupidity, as in choosing to risk getting oneself killed rather than appear “girlish.” It will be pure stupidity for David to go forth and try to match Goliath in terms of sheer might. Goliath is simply too big and strong.
Saul, it seems, is prone to this stupidity, for he gives young David his personal armor and sword, as though the object here is for David to try and hold his own against Goliath in a sword fight. David tries the stuff on and it just doesn’t feel right.
Instead, he applies the skills he has learned as a shepherd boy, carefully selecting five polished stones from the river bank, which he will use with his sling shot. With these he topples the giant, entering the annals of masculine heroes for all time.
It is interesting to note the place of fathers in this story. David’s actual biological father, Jesse, is aging and rather peripheral to the story. David is the last of his sons, and seems to be somewhat off Jesse’s radar screen. Instead, Saul takes on the figure of “father” for David, with David becoming his “son to be proud of”, triumphing on the playing field.
So let me talk now a bit more directly about fathers. It seems to me that there are always two different fathers in play for all of us. The first, who I will call “Dad One“, is this archetypal, cultural image of the great and powerful father that is found in every age. Fearlessly Dad One goes forth into this dangerous world, modeling for us how to leave behind the safety of the nest in order to take on the challenges and opportunities of the world out there. Though this Dad loves us and is absolutely on our side, his love is demanding. He knows we are capable of more than we routinely settle for, and at times he rebukes his children for not giving their best effort.
It is interesting to note that in our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus embodies the Dad One, the Great Father. He is with his children (the disciples) on a boat at night. When a storm arises, and they are terrified, he is absolutely fearless, calmly commanding the fierce wind and waves to be silent. Once he’s done slaying the giant, he turns to his children and reprimands them, “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” You are capable of so much more than you are showing.
So there’s Dad One, and then there is Dad Two, by which I mean real, flesh and blood dads with names like Jeff, and Al, and Bob. In the early years of a child’s life, Dad Two manages to embody Dad One fairly seamlessly, which is important because the child needs his father to be this for him at this stage of the game. The child looks up to his dad and sees his hero, the fearless one who competently interacts with the unknown and often scary world, and thereby finds courage to inch out into the world as well.
But somewhere along the way the seams begin to show. Dad Two is revealed to be, in fact, flawed. Sometimes he wimps out, or does obviously stupid things. Either suddenly or gradually Dad Two comes tumbling from the pedestal he has been standing comfortably upon ever since the child was born. It’s inevitable.
What happens from this point on is pretty critical as to whether peoples’ souls become whole or not. In his Spirit-inspired wisdom, Jesus’ most famous parable dealt with this very developmental issue. A father has two sons. The younger son rather clearly has reached a point where his Dad has fallen from the pedestal. Having become aware that his father isn’t a god after all, the younger son leaves home, assuming he has no more use for this flawed man whom he has called “Dad.”
The son goes forth into the world, where he himself is humbled in the school of hard knocks. He comes home with a new appreciation of his Dad, who despite his imperfections, loves him with a love that is more real than anything he encountered in his journey into the world. At the end of the story, a real father and a real son — not a perfect dad and a perfect son — find one another in a real love.
The older brother — what’s with him? Perhaps he hadn’t really ever come to terms with the fact that his Dad really wasn’t Super Dad — never really taken him off the pedestal. Maybe he clung to the notion that if they could both just manage to play out the script — “I’ll be super son and you be super dad” — the world would make sense. But it doesn’t really work, which becomes painfully clear when the other son — the one who had refused to play out the script — finally comes home and gets loved any way.
David and Goliath lives on inside us, but there are other stories we carry with us as well. In the 20th century there was another story that caught hold of our imagination, and here I am referring to the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions are on a journey in search of wholeness. The Cowardly Lion seeks courage like that of David standing before Goliath. He gives this delightful little speech:
“Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage. What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage. What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage… What puts the “ape” in ape-ricot? Whatta they got that I ain’t got?”
His friends answer: “Courage!”
The cowardly lion suffers under a misconception of courage — that it is the absence of fear, when, in fact, courage is simply the ability to do what needs to be done even when you are feeling very much afraid. And at the end he discovers that he has actually had bits of real courage all along the way.
And Dorothy, seeking the great and powerful Wizard of Oz — another name for the Great Dad — discovers at the end that the wizard is simply the little man behind the curtain. “You’re a bad man!” she declares when she realizes the deceit.
“No,” he says firmly, “I’m actually a very good man. I’m just a very poor wizard.” Dad isn’t Super Dad, but he’s a good man, capable of offering real love.
If you read ahead in the story of David, you see him struggling with these same issues. After slaying Goliath, David becomes the poster boy of masculinity, with the burden being the Super Dad. He falls short, of course. We hear the unseemly story of how, as a middle-aged man David tries to restore his sense of masculinity by committing adultery with the younger Bathsheba, murdering her husband Uriah to cover his crime. A son comes forth from this illicit union who dies as an infant, representing the utter failure of David’s fatherhood.
Later another son named Absalom sees his father fall from his pedestal, and in response leads an armed rebellion in an attempt to overthrow David’s kingship. When Absalom’s rebellion falls short, David weeps for the boy who ends up getting killed before the flawed father and son can experience reconciliation.
As I noted before, Jesus in the boat with his disciples embodies the fearless Super Dad. And yet as the story proceeds, we see that the sons of this Dad being challenged to see more than Jesus’ power and might. He begins to make his way to Jerusalem, and along the way he becomes a distinctly vulnerable figure.
When Jesus tells his disciples he must suffer and die, Peter, speaking on behalf of all the children, says in essence, “No, Dad stay up on the pedestal. Stay powerful and invulnerable. That’s what we need you to be.”
When they get to Jerusalem, Peter is intent on staying on script. “I will be the super son. I will never abandon you.” Jesus knows otherwise. “Perfection isn’t what we have here, son. What we do have, however, is the opportunity for real love.”
Life humbles us. If things go as they are intended, eventually the son comes back home, humbler and wiser, and he looks at his dad and his dad looks at him, and they let go of the burden of being the perfect dad or the perfect son, and they love one anotherjust as they are.
And the kingdom of God is found.