- First Reading 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
- Psalm 20
- Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17
- Gospel Mark 4:26-34
I suspect we all know the Cinderella story. Countless variations exist across cultures. The core of the story is a young woman, usually a princess or, at least, an aristocrat, who, one way or another, is separated from her parents and loses her aristocratic or royal identity. She meets a prince, they fall in love, but she runs away before her lower-class status can be discovered, frequently losing a shoe in the process. The prince pursues her, finds her, and her true, upper-class parents are revealed.
I suspect most of us are, like me, most familiar with the animated Disney version, the one with the helpful mice and “bippity boppity boo.” This animated Disney movie is based on a French version of the story published by Perault in 1697. Perault originated the fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and added the detail that the slipper was made of glass, but his story was an adaptation of an even older Italian story, first published in a collection of oral folktales in 1634.
The story is an archetype, and that Italian oral tradition was not the original, not by far. There is another French version of the story from the 12th century, in which the Cinderella character is named for the Ash Tree under which she was abandoned outside a convent as a newborn because she was a twin in a society that viewed twins as a sign of infidelity. There are even more ancient versions of the story found in Latin and Greek, the Latin from the second or third century, the Greek from the first.
I have, so far, confined the history of the Cinderella story to European versions, but the story is not so limited, not at all. There are also several Asian variants, many of which seem to stem from a ninth century Chinese story in which the “fairy godmother” is Cinderella’s mother reincarnated into a fish who helps Cinderella and provides her with a pair of golden shoes which she wears to a festival where she catches the eye of both the king and her wicked family. Fleeing the family, she loses one of the golden shoes, which the king uses to find her.
All told, there are hundreds of variations on the story which can be grouped into several families. I consider our text from First Samuel to be one of those variations. Certainly, the gender is flipped, and several of the magical elements, as well as the wicked family, are missing, but the David story is, like the Cinderella story, fundamentally about an outsider recognizing the worth of a child or young person who had been dismissed by society.
In the Disney and Perault versions of Cinderella, the wicked stepmother’s motivations are never explicitly stated, but appear to stem from the stepmother’s desire to concentrate the family wealth into her natural-born children. Jesse, David’s father, does not appear to have this intent in leaving David out. Jesse does not even know what Samuel has come to do when he gathers his older sons, leaving the youngest to tend to the flocks.
David is, of course, not the first Biblical leader to have been a shepherd. Moses served as the shepherd to his father-in-law’s flocks, and it was while he was out with the sheep the God appeared in the burning bush. The shepherd-leader is a motif developed extensively in scripture, ultimately leading to Christ who proclaims himself the Good Shepherd. The role of shepherd is one God clearly considers preparatory for human leadership for several reasons which are regularly explored on the last Sunday before Advent, but in summary, the shepherd is meant to fight for the sheep, fending off predators and thieves, as a human leader should protect the people. The shepherd rarely owns the sheep, but is usually hired by someone else, a reminder that the people do not belong to the leader, but to God.
Further, the shepherd is usually not a valued member of society. Jesse did not know that Samuel had come to choose a new king, a successor to Saul, but did know that he and his sons were invited to a sacrifice, to a sacred ritual and, as was so often the case with shepherds out in the fields, David was left behind. Shepherds, by the nature of the job, were often unable to perform the religious rituals, and so were frequently considered to be less holy, less pure, less clean, even to the point that they could contaminate others, in a ritual sense.
This brings us back to the Cinderella story. The name Cinderella, of course, is derived from the appearance of servants who, thanks to their role in tending the fires, often became covered in ash and soot. They could be kept out of the nicer parts of the house because of the risk that they would dirty the nice furniture. Some versions of the Cinderella story explicitly state that the dirt, grime, and soot made her ugly, masking her beauty until it is magically revealed by the fairy godmother, or an animal reincarnation of her late mother, or discerned by the king or prince.
In the Cinderella stories, those kings and princes have the benefit of the shoe to help them see through the ashes. Samuel has no magic item, but is guided by God, who “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” and so Samuel, too, is able to see beyond the tall, warrior-looking sons of Jesse until they went to fetch David, David the youngest, David the shepherd, David the small boy who brings down the massive Goliath by using range. David who will become a king much loved by God despite his many, many faults. We will get to those, I suspect, in the coming weeks.
For now, David is the one whose potential had been overlooked and is now recognized, much like the later Cinderella stories. David and Cinderella are lifted out of their lower stations by extra-human forces, and I think the reason we like these stories so much, the reason so many different cultures have come up with their own versions of the story is because we all like to see ourselves in the role of Cinderella, in the role of David. We have all felt, and likely many of us often feel unappreciated, undervalued, put-upon to do the work while others take the benefits. We all like to dream of the moment someone will come and recognize us for what we are, will see the value we have, will see the gifts we have to offer and will elevate us out of the basement, out of the cinders, out of the fields, out of the margins and into the center.
It is a common tendency in our culture to center ourselves in stories. We always imagine that we are the hero. I think we need to stop that. Look to our text from 2 Corinthians: “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Paul is not centering himself or his audience: “knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.” Paul is not putting himself or us in the position of David, but in the position of Samuel. Paul’s hope and Paul’s task for the Corinthians is not that they should be recognized for the value they have, but that they should finally recognize the value held by others.
Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters are the ones invited to the ball. Samuel, Jesse, and David’s brothers are the ones invited to the sacrifice. Cinderella and David were nearly excluded because they were too busy tending to the unappreciated tasks, stoking the fires, tending the sheep to participate in the rituals of civic and religious life. Paul and the Corinthians are in the position to boast outwardly, but Paul cautions against those who “boast in outward appearance and not in the heart” and urges the Corinthians to demonstrate to them a better way, a way that is not merely the performance of religion, the performance of ritual. A way that is not merely regularly showing up to church on Sunday but a way that transforms the inner heart of each and every person, a way that serves as a visible model and witness to others, a way that inspires others to also live for Christ. Paul calls the Corinthians to be Samuels so that they may come to “regard no one from a human point of view” but to strive to see people as God sees them. Paul declares: “anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Paul calls the Corinthians, Paul calls us, not to wait for others to recognize our best-selves, but to recognize the ways so many others have already been transformed. Paul calls us to see others through the lense of the resurrection, to see others as God sees them, to see the image of God in all people, to recognize that every persons value is not their job, their clothes, their car, their house, is not the things they can do for us, but is the status shared by us all, children of God and heirs with Christ to a new creation that waits only for us to see it. Everything has become new. We need only look. Thanks be to God.