Reading this brief story about king Saul and his desperate attempt to regain God’s support using a medium as a last resort to consult the spirit of Samuel, is like watching the 5th season of House of Cards or the Game of Thrones without having ever watched the previous seasons: you basically won’t have a clue about what’s going on, who is who, and why is doing what is doing!
The books of Samuel, originally one book, can very much be described like a great saga or a glorious trilogy in three episodes. Episode 1 -the shortest- is about Samuel, the great judge, who refuses to be king and struggles to keep Israel faithful to Yahweh. Episode 2 is about king Saul, who symbolically represents the beginning of a stable monarchy, but fails to be a good king. Episode 3 is the story of David, the rise of the great king of Israel. The more you read, the more you realise that both books of Samuel are very much about the saga of King David. He is the hero to rival any other. From the very beginning it is very clear that he is the one, while Saul appears like a small-minded person, full of jealousy and envy toward David who even when gets the chance to kill Saul refuses the lay his hands on him. In the saga of King David there are all the elements that would make this story a great series of films: treachery, hatred and love, friendship and jealousy, power, great fights and battles. The difference between the Saga of King David and, let’s say Game of Thrones, is that in the biblical narrative God always plays a central role while in the novel that inspired the Tv series God is completely absent and plays no role in people’s lives.
When we meet Saul today, he has already attempted to kill David who has to flee and find refuge with the Philistines, the abhorrent enemies of Israel. Saul feels lost. The reader can get a hint of what is about to happen because God is not with Saul any more. Saul will fall in order for David to rise and be king. When Saul goes to consult the medium, we are at the vigil of a great battle and, from what the story says, we know that the king of Israel doesn’t know what to do. He is afraid, and God is not with him. He is blind and even the spirit of Samuel invoked by the medium confirms that he is doomed to die because God turned away from him. Now how are David and Jesus related to each other? There two story in Luke’s gospel that may help us understand the connection: the stories of Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus.
Firstly, the blind man of the gospel of Luke calls Jesus Son of David, which was certainly one of his titles among others, like Son of Man, but it has a special connotation when referred to Jesus. Secondly if you remember, at the very the beginning of Matthew’s gospel we find the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah -that very boring list of names (Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, etc.)- which tries exactly to proof this point: Jesus was of the lineage of king David so that the history of salvation would come without interruption from Abraham to David and finally to Jesus.
Also, what’s fascinating about the saga of king David is that it shows us that the history of salvation is deeply mingled with our human history and our humanity as well as it is for Jesus, true man and true God. What the books of Samuel relate is God’s constant involvement in the history of his people, and his redeeming love always in action. Lukes’ stories of the blind man and Zacchaeus shows the same compassionate love for the people Jesus meets. In that sense, there is no difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. What really seems to be distinctive is Jesus’ approach. In the great saga of king David we are still talking about kings and essentially powerful people. God seems to work more on macro level in the Old Testament, while in the New Testament Jesus is among people and relate to them as equal. Think of the story of the blind man. We don’t even know his name. He is a man of the street, a beggar. Zacchaeus, instead, is a more important character because he is a chief tax-collector, but still not a king or chief commander of an army. Jesus has a personal approach as well. Even if you know that they meet in the middle of the street or in the temple among hundreds of people, you feel like they are having a one to one encounter. And certainly a transformative one.
Let’s have a closer look at these two men.
They have something in common: both of them can’t see Jesus. One because of his blindness, and the other because he is short. They certainly come from very different social status: one is a beggar, the other is a rich man. And perhaps what the gospel is suggesting is that they represent symbolically two different but complementary types of discipleship. The blind man, once healed, will actively follow Jesus along the street of Jerusalem, while Zacchaeus after converting to Jesus, will work to re-establish himself as part of the renewed Israel right where he is. Different calls and rather distinctive vocations, but the same personal encounter with Jesus.
Their physical condition becomes the symbol of their spiritual situation: something is stopping them to see the Lord. We may call it sin, but in the case of the blind man is not entirely clear that is his sin the cause of his blindness. In Zacchaeus, instead, we can easily identify the most despicable people in Israel: the tax-collectors. However, he knows his condition. He acknowledges to be a professional thief despised by his own people as soon as he makes a public declaration to give half of his possession to the poor and pay back four times to all those he defrauded.
Again, the blind man and Zacchaeus are not the focus, but Jesus is. There is no moral judgment in his attitude toward them. To the blind man he asks: “What do you want from me?” Zacchaeus must have been very surprised that Jesus knew his name. And he simply says: “Hurry up because I’m staying at your house today”. That was enough for him. We don’t know what they talked during the time Jesus was with Zaccheus in his house, and would probably never know. What we know is that they met and the outcome of meeting Jesus is Zacchaeus’ marvelous conversion.
Very often when we look at the world as it is, we may be tempted to feel despondent and discouraged because of the violence and hatred we see in it every day. The selfishness and narcissism are big idols of our society. There is always a big moralistic temptation in our look to the world. Sometimes it is very subtle, but it is there.
The books of Samuel perhaps remind us that human history is deeply mingled with God’s history and any attempt of separating them would probably ended up generating big monsters. Lastly I feel that our call is to enable people to meet Jesus, to help them removing the obstacles that prevent them to meet him. This is why sharing our experience of faith is so important, we learn by listening to each other. From Jesus we don’t just listen to what they say, but to their hearts, which may be called auscultation. In medical terms auscultation is the action of listening to sounds from the heart, lungs, or other organs, typically with a stethoscope, as a part of medical diagnosis, but in spiritual terms is the art of listening to people’s lives, feelings, emotions and stories from the heart.
The conversion of the blind man and Zacchaeus is the result of Jesus’ listening to them or -as we may call it- of Jesus’ auscultation. Because Jesus listened to them this way, they felt loved and ready to let him in and transform their lives. We are witnesses, not judges. Witnesses of this love.