‘We’re looking for someone to manage a team’. A common phrase in a job advert. Yet apparently, if that word manage was replaced with the word ‘develop’ then more women would be likely to apply. Someone has done some research on the phrases in ads and how people from different backgrounds read them. It’s quite fascinating. For instance the word ‘stakeholder’ apparently serves as a signal to people of colour that their contribution will not be valued.
The researches don’t seek to explain why this is. They don’t give a verdict on whether it’s right or wrong. They’re just interested in the way we react to what we see and hear, and the assumptions we make.
I suppose if recruiters want to reach the widest range of talent they will take these findings seriously. It made me wonder, what do we look for in other people? What kinds of unconscious bias might I have? What assumptions do we make? I heard of a church which had spring clean days – where the men came and strimmed the churchyard and the women polished the brass. In one of my churches there was a man who was brilliant at arranging flowers – but he always did it secretly!
In today’s reading from the Old Testament both Samuel and Jesse know what they’re looking for. They know what a king should be like. So does God – but he’s judging not by the outward appearance but by the heart. Humans tend to judge one another on the basis of personal characteristics – even today leaders tend to be at least 6 foot tall– or by qualifications. But God looks at the inner life –at integrity and faithfulness to him.
My apple trees are now entering the June drop. All over the lawn are immature apples, small but apparently perfectly formed. It seems such a waste – but maybe the tree has cast them off because, unknown to us, a bug lurks hidden inside. People are the same – we can be outwardly attractive and competent, but inwardly some secret or flaw is hidden.
The reading from last week described how the people of Israel entered the Promised Land. As the prophet Samuel grew old, the people asked for a king, and despite God’s warnings about what the king would do, they insisted on appointing a monarch. Saul was chosen, but it hadn’t worked out. The young man had struggled to break free from Samuel’s shadow and when he did act on his own initiative, he disobeyed God.
So as v.35 says, the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel, and Samuel grieved over Saul. But in v.1 the Lord says to Samuel: ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? Fill your own and set out – I have provided for myself a new king’. When Samuel is trapped by regrets and paralysed by turning over the past, God gives him something to do. God creates a new beginning. God moves on. He will not dwell forever on the past, but starts forming the future.
Of course, God is kind to those who grieve. Our gracious loving God holds us in bereavement and other forms of loss. Jesus understands what we are going through when a life event has knocked us for six, and he is patient with us in our trials. I’ve known that in my own life, and I’ve also known times when God has gently nudged me forward: ‘How long will you miss that place? Or how long will you be sad about what might have been when there can still be joy ahead of you?’ Maybe he asks us: ‘How long will you keep beating yourself up about that sin? Do you not believe you have been forgiven? How long will you mourn over that wrong decision? Surely God still has a purpose for you?’
What’s done is done. God can remodel our future, he heals, restores. God gives hope and even joy – part of that may be that sometimes we need to let go of turning over the past.
So Samuel has to go and anoint a new king. But as he points out in v.2, this won’t be popular with Saul. The Lord comes up with a ruse: Samuel’s excuse for travelling to Bethlehem will be to offer a sacrifice. Take a heifer with you, and call the whole town.
The other day I was trying to help a child negotiate a tricky social situation. ‘My friend has given me a book,’ he said ‘but I’ve got the same one already. What can I write to him? I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading it because I already have!’ So we thought about things he could say that were still true and also complimentary: ‘It’s a really good book. Or: Thank you for your thoughtful gift.’ We don’t have to resort to so-called white lies, there are often other ways around.
It’s a sign of the regard in which Samuel is held that the town elders come to meet him trembling. According to the custom at the time, they have to go and prepare themselves, probably by ritual washing, for the sacrifice, and then Jesse presents his various sons to Samuel, whose initial reaction in v.6 is ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands before the Lord’. This guy is big, strong and tall. He has presence. He’s an obvious leader. He is the firstborn – surely he is the King?’
But no. God says: ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Interesting that the Lord has rejected him. Seems strong – but perhaps the point had to be made: contrary to society’s expectations at the time the Lord had not chosen the eldest for this particular role.
Later on in the story of Goliath Eliab reveals his true colours. When David turns up to help, Eliab is rude and dismissive. It seems his impressive appearance conceals an arrogant and resentful spirit.
One by one Jesse’s various sons pass before Samuel until it appears no-one is left. Actually young David remains, who is so unimportant that no-one bothered to invite him along. He is called in from the sheepfolds, and in a ceremony which is echoed in our own Coronation, Samuel anoints David with oil as Israel’s next king. Interestingly while that was being read it occurred to me that the implication is also that David hasn’t been purified like all the others were – it reminded me of the time when Jesus is teaching about the Sabbath and uses David as an example of one who cut to the heart of the law rather than legalistically obeying the letter. David ate the bread of the Presence which it was lawful for priest only to eat. Is this a similar incident – something to think about.
So what is the message here for us? Is the moral of this story that God rejects the obviously qualified in favour of the weak? Are we more use to God if we don’t know what we’re doing? Are unreadiness, unsuitability, lack of training and amateurish incompetence virtues?
Of course not. V.12 tells us that David is ‘Ruddy, had beautiful eyes and was handsome’. Physically he is just as impressive as his brothers. He is not weak or incompetent – already has killed bears and lions, and he will become a great warrior. The potential is there – and that incidentally is part of the meaning of the gospel reading, the seed of the Kingdom is not amazing because it is small. Rather it is amazing because of what it will become.
The point of the story is ‘Do not be deceived by looking just at the outside. Look at the heart too.’ In our Group we benefit from the services of an administrator, and what I think is great about Lorraine is that she’s not just good at admin. She sees it as a ministry, as a form of service to enable the churches to run well. It’s her gift that she can offer to people and help them at important times of their lives. It’s that attitude of the heart that makes a difference.
It’s those values that we need to cherish. Attitudes that are revealed by people’s actions, their throwaway words, their approach to others. We can ask for the Holy Spirit to cast light on ourselves too. Where is my heart? Where is yours?
Is this person honest? One who won’t lie to protect themselves or the organisation. Do they have integrity with deeds matching their words? Are they prone to gossip or can they keep a confidence? Wisdom is revealed in being listening and discerning. So many competent people seem to think you get results by trampling on others – but life is not a zero-sum game and you have to work with others, so do they show love? Are they responsible for their own decisions? Is humility shown, not like Uriah Heep, but a realistic view of oneself and one’s talents?
Above all, do they have a dependence on God? That was where David excelled. Despite all his talents, he knew that he ultimately depended on God, that nothing he could do would truly last unless it was done in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what we see in the New Testament, where the transformational power of God is so strong that St Paul can write, in 1 Corinthians 1:27 ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. Often God can do most with those who are most conscious of their failings. Where the capable trust in their own ability, the humble trust in God and so through his power end up achieving more.
The key is the heart. We spend so long improving our skills – which is great – but let’s work on our thoughts, words and attitudes too! We like to follow impressive leaders, and maybe they are good, but don’t miss the people of talent because their faces don’t fit. Our inner lives are not fixed – God can change us. We are not like the apple which, once it has a bug in it, is spoilt. No, the Holy Spirit gives us self-knowledge so that we can turn to God and receive his power to change. So let us pray that we may become the kind of people, outer and inner, that Christ seeks.