Today we hear the story of the mighty men of David. There is Josheb-Basshebeth (Jo for short); there is Eleazar (El for short); and there is Shammah.
These mighty men did extraordinary things through the power of God. Jo killed 800 Philistines at one time. He was super strong. And when El fought the Philistines, though his arm grew weak, his conviction never faltered, and his hand never left the sword. And then there was Shammah. When all the other soldiers fled, he remained and prevailed. Then, as only a man of grace would do, he invited his deserters back to share in the spoils of war.
These were the mighty men of David. We meet them today in some bunker outside of Bethlehem. It is David’s hometown, and at this point, it is occupied by the Philistines. David is preparing an invasion, and as he sits with his warriors in the dark of night, he pines longingly for his home, reminiscing, remembering, saying out loud: “O, what I would give for a drink of water from the well in Bethlehem!”
Jo, El, and Shammah overhear this and take off. In short order they return to David with a cup of water from the well in Bethlehem. And David returns their heroism by pouring the water on the ground, saying, “The Lord forbid I drink this! Can I drink the blood of those who risk their life for me?”
That is what I want to talk about today: the blood. It is sort of an uncomfortable topic. It makes us wiggle in our seats, but the reality is that in the church blood is an underlying theme that runs through our worship. We talk about the body and blood of Christ. We say, “Drink this in remembrance of me.” Jesus goes so far as to say, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of Man, you have no life in you.” So today I’d like to do some teaching on the blood, and the mighty men of David are a good place to start; they give some Jewish context.
These men were dedicated to David. Without being asked, they seek to do his will, even at the risk of their lives. David’s response to their heroism is that God forbids it.
In the ancient world, it was believed that blood was equivalent to life, that blood was a person’s life force. It gave them energy, vitality, and power. Blood rituals were common. Some were used to unite families, others to share “energy,” and in extreme cases, the blood of an enemy was drunk to comingle the victor’s power with that of the vanquished.
The Jews fully rejected these blood rituals. They believed that each person was made whole, full and complete by God. People were made by God for God to profit God and to serve God’s purpose for creation. In other words, a person’s energy, vitality, and power belonged to God and were to be used for God by God alone.
So when the mighty men of David risked their lives, putting their blood on the line, so to speak, for him to profit by a drink of water he longed for but did not need, David saw how he had become an idol, above God, for these men. So he poured the water on the ground saying, “Can I drink the blood of those who risk their life for me?”
Now we can say David was the king, and he profited from people all the time. They went to war for him, protected him, raised crops, built buildings, and paid taxes to him. And yet David was the king chosen by God, and on his best days, he ruled his dominion, whether at war or in peace, in alignment with the will of God. So when the mighty men risked their life not for God, but the whims of the king, David reminded them that life comes from God, and no one is to profit off the blood of another, not even the king.
So this understanding of blood within Judaism gives us insight into why the disciples in today’s gospel said, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” in response to Jesus’ words, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of Man, you have no life in you.”
These words come at the end of chapter 6 in the Gospel of John. They are the culmination of a conversation Jesus is having with his followers about life, where life comes from, and the purpose of life.
The conversation begins with the miracle feeding of the 5,000 with loaves and fishes. The people at that moment are ready to make Jesus king. After all, who wouldn’t make a man king who is capable of eradicating world hunger? But Jesus rejects their impulse, reminding them of how the Israelites were given manna by God in the desert and they still died.
Jesus had a better offer, “I didn’t come that you may live by bread alone;
I came that you may have eternal life.” And his followers are like, “OK, if you think that is better, we’ll take some of that eternal life. How do we get it?”
And Jesus says, “Believe in me. I am the way, the truth, and the life. Those who take my life within them have eternal life. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. My flesh is the word. In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Chew upon this word, Jesus says. Eat this word. Let it sustain you, and form you, and transform you. I am the bread of life. Eat and profit from me. Take me into you. Have my blood, my life within you. I came so you would profit from me.
This teaching is difficult; no Jew was meant to profit off the blood of another. But Jesus isn’t just another guy. He is the Son of God. What Jesus is doing here is adding to the story of humanity’s relationship with God.
I call it the GREAT RECIPROCITY; God loves us so much that God gives God’s self to us for our profit. Our blood belongs to God. We serve God. And we feed off God. Our power comes from God. This is the great reciprocity that we are made by God, to serve God, and our power to do so comes from God, fully and completely. That has always been the case, but now is fully articulated by Jesus.
This reciprocity reveals our true nature, that we are hybrid beings, mortal and immortal, human and divine, temporal and eternal. We have life so we can serve God, and in turn, we are sustained and nourished and given power by God now and for eternity. This is the Great Reciprocity. This is Jesus’ message. He came to teach us what life looked like when we lived off the power of God.
How do we access that? By living our belief in Jesus through prayer, worship, the Eucharist, charity, study, fasting… And we see what this looks like and what it doesn’t look like in the story of the mighty men of David.
When these mighty men served David, when they risked their life for him, they were able to steal a cup of water, together, right out from under the noses of the Philistines. That may be a story worth telling. But when they, each one of them, was serving God, fighting for God, against some malignant, malevolent, evil force, the metaphor in this case being the Philistines, then Jo alone was able to slay 800, with supernatural strength, because he accessed the power of God. And Eleazar was able to fight despite the limitations of his body, with conviction beyond human capacity, because he accessed the power of God. And Shammah stood his ground, won the day, and shared his victory with a grace that surpassed human glory, because he accessed the power of God.
These are the mighty men, not of David, but of God. To see them in their hybrid status is to see them as temporal and eternal, as human and divine, as mortal and immortal, and they are no different than you and me!
So what story will you tell? How you and two others banded together and stole a cup of water? Or how you stood your ground and fought for the Lord. How you tapped into supernatural strength with unwavering conviction and radical generosity?
What story are you going to tell of how you accessed the power of God?