The Problem with Prejudice

March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: 1 Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/033014.cfm

Prejudice is one of those things that always strikes us as monstrously unfair precisely because it involves pre-judging, judging a person or situation before we actually know anything. Yet, no matter how we try, “pre-judgments” are terribly difficult to root out of our minds and hearts. A person’s clothing, shoes, hairstyle, teeth, jewelry, tattoos or lack thereof, car, or whatever often become a basis for us to make a snap judgment about the person, who he or she is and how we’ll choose to relate to him or her. In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, God shows how he evaluates people and overrules the human tendency toward prejudice.

Context

This reading begins with the Lord sending the prophet Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king. Just before this moment in the First Book of Samuel, God has withdrawn his favor from the existing king, Saul (1 Sam 15). In fact, when the new king is anointed, the Lord takes his spirit away from Saul and an evil spirit begins tormenting him (16:14). Saul is on his way out, but the Lord chooses a “soft launch” approach for the new king: He will begin in obscurity and only gradually gain influence over the tribes of Israel.

Anointing

Samuel brings with him a “horn of oil” to anoint the new king. A horn could be used as a container for oil, much in the same way Davy Crockett used a powder horn (which you can still buy on eBay). Samuel would anoint the new king by opening his oil horn and pouring its contents on the head of the candidate. This is a symbolic act, which echoes the period of the Judges, when the spirit of the Lord would “rush upon” a person (Judg 3:10; 11:29; 14:6). Anointing carries with it a sense of divine appointment and empowerment with His Spirit. Kings like Saul were anointed (1 Sam 10:1), but so were priests (Exod 28:41). In the New Covenant era, anointing oil is used in the sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Sacrament of the Sick.

Not as Man Sees

When the prophet Samuel arrives at the village of Bethlehem to track down the newly appointed king among Jesse’s sons, he can’t quite see as God sees. God had only told him that the chosen one was among Jesse’s sons, not his exact identity. So Jesse presents his sons to the prophet one-by-one, starting with the oldest and tallest. Samuel at first relies on his own human judgment to assess the candidates and thinks that the most impressive looking son must be the one, but God reminds him that the divine way of judging is different: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7 NAB). After reviewing all the sons of Jesse that were presented to him, Samuel still can’t find the one God has chosen and so asks if there are others. Indeed, the youngest, least important of the brothers, David, was on sheep duty during the prophet’s visit, so someone has to run and fetch him.

David

When he arrives, the Lord tells Samuel, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he” (1 Sam 16:12 RSV). Even though the Lord had warned his prophet against judging by appearances, the text tells us that David cut a fine figure and was “ruddy,” that is, he had red hair (16:12). In the same way that God had chosen Saul from the least important family of the smallest tribe in Israel to be king (9:21), he now chooses the youngest brother of eight to be king. God indeed uses the weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27).

Prejudice and Tallness

While this reading marks the next stage in Salvation history, as the Lectionary marches us through the Bible during Lent, it also teaches us a significant lesson. While we like to rail against prejudice, it is tempting for us to be partial, to show favoritism, to treat some people with honor and some with disrespect. Samuel at first thinks that eldest, Eliab, must be the chosen one. But why? The Lord points out the prophet’s shallowness: Samuel approved of Eliab because he was tall! Recent business research has shown that tallness very often correlates with success, so much so that researchers can calculate the amount of money each inch of height is worth. Even most of the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies are of above average height. While we might like to think we are impartial and evenhanded, these data points reveal that even our top decision makers can be swayed by shallow considerations like height. Our human judgment is not much better than Samuel’s.

The New Testament reminds us that there is no partiality with God (Rom 2:11) and that we ought not to treat rich man with greater honor than a poor man (James 2). Samuel’s misstep reminds us to watch ourselves and to guard against prejudice. The Lord’s choice of the young, unimportant brother, David, shows us that our God does turn the world on its head, using the weak to accomplish great things and the obscure to reveal his glory. Indeed, God’s power is more completely displayed when he reveals himself in those whom the world regards as insignificant.

Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.coms Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange. 

image: Illuminated manuscript showing Samuel anointing David, British Library/Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Mark Giszczak

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Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the CatholicBibleStudent.com blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at CatholicNewsAgency.com. Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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