There’s a story in the Old Testament that we don’t usually tell as part of Holy Week or as a moment that seems to anticipate the person of Jesus.
It’s a story from the life of King Saul, who was the first king of Israel and had the dubious distinction of being selected and then un-selected by God for the job.
Power corrupted Saul — it made him not only less inclined to trust and to follow God, but more narrowly paranoid, and murderous even toward those who wanted to help him.
When the young shepherd David is first brought into Saul’s court, it is David’s music, indeed, perhaps David’s music alone, that seems to soothe Saul’s troubled mind, if only temporarily…and yet before long, David becomes such a figure of envy for Saul that he ends up turning David into the very enemy he most fears.
They begin to fight a civil war for control of the country.
And then finally, on the last night of his life, Saul does a very strange thing.
He knows, for the most part, that his cause is doomed, and that likely he will die.
But he breaks his own laws and seeks out a soothsayer from outside Israel…a woman who follows other gods…a woman who could be put to death for practicing her own faith openly in the neighborhood…a woman with little to gain by helping Saul, and everything to lose…
It’s an odd choice to go ask her for help, but that’s what Saul does.
He is hoping she will be able to raise the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel…the prophet who had originally been led by God to find him, and to crown him king.
Saul disguises himself and knocks on her door, on the outskirts of the village of Endor. But the woman is the real deal, and she knows exactly who he is, and how risky it is for her that he is there.
Nevertheless, she lets him in, and she conjures the spirit of Samuel, who is perhaps even less delighted to see Saul than the woman had been.
Samuel gives it to Saul straight. He is doomed. God has un-chosen him. There is no path forward. By that hour on the following day, his ghost will be down in the underworld with Samuel’s.
Saul is devastated.
And then the story offers a curious detail.
It says that the soothsayer of Endor, this foreign woman who lives on the edge of town, trying to keep a low profile just to survive, actually takes pity on King Saul.
She cannot change the future. She cannot change the truth. That he is there with her, at all, is dangerous for them both, but especially for her.
Nevertheless, she shows him kindness. She gives him something to eat. She sits with him. She lets him grieve.
This is all the more remarkable because he doesn’t entirely deserve it.
If you read his story, it will be clear that while Saul is a tragic figure, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. Too many of his wounds are self-inflicted…too much of his bravado has rung too hollow for too long…too many of his choices have led to the deaths of too many.
But that doesn’t matter in this particular moment.
In this moment, he does deserve it. He deserves care. Because any of us would.
Because what matters in this moment is that she recognizes him, not as an enemy, not as the follower of a different God, not even as a dangerous, flailing, broken king.
She recognizes him simply as a person in pain.
It’s something, let’s admit, that he would likely never have done for her.
But be that as it may, what matters is that in this moment, this woman, in her own small way, stands up for life. She stands up for decency. She tends to his soul.
In a very pointed irony, her gentle hospitality shows more about what faith is supposed to be about than Saul has seen from the so-called religious people all around him in a very long time.
It’s a story worth remembering.
It’s a story not unlike the one Jesus would tell in Luke’s gospel, when he talked about the Good Samaritan — another outsider who showed more of the true spirit of faith than any of the people who passed by.
Moreover, it’s a story worth remembering tonight, when we tell the story of the last night of Jesus’ own life.
Jesus experiences fear, too. He clearly understands what lies before him.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks God for some sort of path forward — to no avail.
But unlike Saul, Jesus is not a perpetrator of violence…he is not a corrupt king.
There’s a more fundamental difference too.
Because if Saul’s visit to Endor is able to humanize him, then the story of Jesus from his arrest until his death is a story of being dehumanized — in being mocked and beaten and jeered at and killed.
It’s horrible because it is so easy to picture: in the eyes of the Romans, and the Jewish leaders, Jesus is not a man, but a problem to get rid of.
In the eyes of the crowd, Jesus is not one of their own, anymore; he’s something between a scapegoat and a cheap thrill.
How stupid they had been to cheer for him earlier that week. Well, no more.
Goodness can be so fragile, and fear so powerful for any of us.
When you put them up against our fears, virtues such as kindness and restraint, patience and perspective can come to seem like luxuries we don’t have time for.
They can seem like the paths of dangerous weakness.
And there is no disputing that they make us vulnerable. They are risky ways to live.
And yet, Jesus believed such vulnerability was the only way forward for us.
He believed that it was only in our willingness to risk such vulnerability that the Kingdom of God could ever take hold.
In the face of the world’s dehumanizing tendencies, the choice to be human…the choice to be kind…the refusal to hate…the refusal to be afraid… all that was a radical way to live.
Who would love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them? Who would offer supper to a doomed king?
It was crazy. It is crazy.
And yet, Jesus teaches us that this is the holiest life. And it is through such holy lives that God is actively tending to the world.
We remember it tonight because it was tonight that our dehumanizing tendencies led to the arrest and death of God’s own Son.
That should remind us of other things we need to remember tonight.
Tonight, there are people on t.v. saying any form of extremism is permissible, so long as its Christian.
Tonight, there are people saying that our enemies, foreign and domestic, are little more than animals.
Tonight, there are children hurting physically and emotionally because someone has seen fit to punish or diminish them, perhaps acting out of their own brokenness or merely out of a sheer love of doing the punishing.
Dehumanizing in so many forms is alive and well tonight–a perennial temptation before us and within us.
What can we hope to do in such a world as this?
Jesus taught that we can start by pushing ourselves to see, by committing to engage, and so far as we can by risking to love–enemies and friends, strangers and kinsmen, victims and perpetrators.
It is a vulnerable way to live.
But tonight, we remember that it is the only way forward.
It is the only hope there is.
Tonight, we remember Jesus gave his life to point us not to death, but toward building a world finally worth living for at last.
It is the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness cannot overcome.
It is the light of Christ, who comes to redeem the world.