There are times when we can only live by hope, when what confronts us is so overwhelming, so huge, so utterly beyond our strength, that it’s simply hopeless, or a joke, to try to muster any resources against it. Sometimes we need a magic wand, something supernatural and beyond us, to come and defeat what cannot be defeated. But that’s child’s fantasy! Or is it?
Our faith tradition abounds with rich images of hope, images that point precisely towards where that magic wand lies.
One such image is the image of David and Goliath, an image of how good perennially stands before evil, justice before selfishness, sensitivity before brutality, tenderness before what’s callous, blood and flesh before iron and concrete.
Here’s the image: At one point in her history, Israel, who in this story represents God’s cause, is in battle against the Philistines who (as the word “philistine” still connotes) represent brutality, injustice, lack of feeling, and lack of God.
Their champion is a giant, Goliath, a brute of unparalleled strength who, as presented in this image, has no feelings, no sensitivity, no goodness. He walks onto the battlefield clothed in iron, a seemingly inanimate force, sneering, arrogant, disdainful of anything that opposes him. Beside him stands his armour-bearer, also draped in iron.
On the other side stands Israel, looking infantile, intimidated by all this strength, this mindlessness, this iron, knowing that within her ranks nobody can be found to fight Goliath on his own terms. There’s no way to meet this challenge as it’s offered, but to refuse it is an even a greater humiliation.
So she changes the terms. Instead of taking her strongest man, clothing him with iron, and sending him out against Goliath, Israel send a young boy, David, with no armour. He goes out barefoot, bearing only a slingshot, more a boy’s plaything than a weapon for war.
And he cuts a pathetic figure, a naive child, on the battlefield, standing before the brute forces of war, a joke. And that’s how Goliath sees him. Not an opponent even worth fighting – “Am I a dog, that you come out against me with sticks? Come here and I’ll cut your head off and feed it to the birds!” What’s godless doesn’t exactly cower when it meets truth and goodness.
But we know the outcome! David takes his sling, reaches into his shepherd’s pouch for a smooth stone that will find the chink in all that armour and iron and penetrate the one place where the giant can’t protect himself. He selects such a stone and slings it at the giant. It finds its mark and all that arrogance and iron comes crashing to the ground. David finishes the job with the giant’s own sword.
A child fells a giant, the plaything of a young boy overpowers the weapons of war, naivete and innocence prove superior to an army, sensitivity proves more powerful than brutality. This is the stuff of fairy- tales, a story for kids before they must face hard reality. But, in the end, it is reality, hard reality. Hope brings it to awareness.
That image, David before Goliath, the child before the brute giant, depicts how God’s cause always stands before the world – seemingly hopelessly over-matched, naive, a child before a giant, the naive in front of the sophisticated, tender skin against iron, a joke, something not to be taken seriously.
But the victory belongs to the child, to God. The giant is the one who falls, it’s iron that’s vulnerable. But it’s vulnerable to a very particular thing – a smooth pebble from a shepherd’s pouch, a pebble that a shepherd has spend hours pressing, palming, practising with.
What’s the image here? What’s the shepherd’s pouch? What’s the pebble?
When David reached into his shepherd’s pouch and took out a sling and a smooth pebble, you can be sure that he wasn’t doing that for the first time. As a shepherd, in the fields by himself, he would have spent many hours practising with his slingshot, countless hours searching for just the right pebbles, and many more hours palming these pebbles to get to know their exact feel, to smooth off their edges so that their path would be straight, to make them an extension of himself.
That’s our task too. Long before we walk onto the battlefield to confront the giant, we need to spend long, lonely hours palming and polishing what’s in our shepherd’s pouch – prayer, the sacraments, our faith traditions.
These are David’s pebbles, the magic wand, our weapons against the giant. We need, through many hours, solitary and with others, to palm them, press them, and give them the feel of our hands, the smell of our skin, so that when we fling them at the giant, they will find the chink in the armour of what’s senseless, brute, iron, mindless, opposed to God.
Such is the way of hope and, even if we doesn’t save the world, it can save our own sanity.