There are many characters in the Bible that we might, wrongly perhaps, skip over as not being particularly important; they don’t come across as heroes like Samson or Esther, they aren’t great Kings like David or Solomon, they weren’t vital to the life and story of Jesus like Mary. But some of these often-overlooked characters can be significant in other ways, showing us and teaching us something really important through their lives, what happened to them, and how other people engaged with them. One of these is Mephibosheth.
We first encounter Mephibosheth as a young boy of five. We read that the same day he learned that his father (Jonathan) and grandfather (King Saul) were dead, an accident where he was dropped by his nurse resulted in him having a physical disability in his feet; “Jonathan son of Saul had a son who was lame in both feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became disabled. His name was Mephibosheth.”
Mephibosheth was important, the grandson of a King, the son of an heir to the throne. He would have grown up in his first five years with privilege and honour. But in one fell swoop his life is transformed. The Philistines have killed his father and grandfather in battle, and when the news reaches the royal court they flee in terror, dropping Mephibosheth and causing him to become disabled, described in the story as being lame in both feet.
How does Mephibosheth’s story have any relevance to us today? Well, perhaps in that it is sadly not unusual for children to have catastrophic, life changing, events happen to them still. In a moment, a terrible illness can be devastating, or a horrific car crash can result in a child being orphaned and experiencing life changing injuries. It can happen in an instant. Once traveling back from a trip to Ireland I was driving across Anglesey from the ferry terminal and was suddenly flagged down by a man at the side of the road. He told me that there had been an appalling car accident just ahead and that I must turn around and find another route. As I looked past him, in the field at the side of the road I could see pieces of cars, shattered wrecks that moments before had been driving through the Welsh countryside. What broke my heart most was that scattered across the field I could see children’s toys; a lovely family holiday had abruptly and fatally ended.
But what of Mephibosheth; what happened to him? Well, we lose track of him in the Bible account for many years, but it seems that the few survivors of King Saul’s court went to live in a place called Lo Debar, near to where Mephibosheth’s uncle, Ish-Bosheth, who had been killed by David’s men, had lived in Mahanaim. Lo Debar was a bit of a ghetto town, its name meaning ‘no thing’, ‘no place’, or ‘no pasture’. This is where Mephibosheth would have grown up. There has been some speculation linking the meaning of the name of the place where Mephibosheth lived, and his own disability, which culturally would have left him being in a lowly position… ‘no thing’.
We pick up Mephibosheth’s story again many years later in 2 Samuel 9, when King David enquires if there are any surviving family members of his friend Jonathan, who was killed by the Philistines. He is informed that there is one, Mephibosheth, “…one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive. He is lame in both feet.” David seemingly ignores Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant and invites him back into the royal court, to a place of honour, restoring his family’s land, in memory of his friendship with his father, Jonathan, and to keep the promise he had made many years before:
“… David got up from the south side of the stone. He bowed down in front of Jonathan with his face to the ground. He did it three times. Then they kissed each other and cried. But David cried more than Jonathan did. Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace. In the name of the Lord we’ve promised to be friends. We have said, ‘The Lord is a witness between you and me. He’s a witness between your children and my children forever.’ ” 1 Samuel 20:41-42
Mephibosheth isn’t sure what to make of all of this, he refers to himself as “…nothing but a dead dog”. David, perhaps aware of the evident shock and fear that Mephibosheth might have been feeling, provided help for him in the shape of Ziba, a former servant of Mephibosheth’s grandfather, Saul, and now a servant of David. Ziba himself had a large family and plenty of servants that could all help Mephibosheth.
Mephibosheth thereafter ate at the King’s table regularly and was treated like one of the King’s own sons. He was welcomed because he was wanted, not because of any influence he had. He was reinstated into the royal court with honour, restored to the same level as David’s sons, given the support he needed, and valued for who he was.
How does the way that David welcomed Mephibosheth into his royal court challenge the way we welcome children and young people with additional needs into church? Are they wanted, or do we inwardly groan when they arrive? Do we give them a place of honour, helping them to take part in everything, or do we merely ‘child mind’ them in a corner until they are collected? Do we provide them with the support that they need, or do we leave them to cope for themselves? Do we look past their additional needs and see the person that they are, and truly value them, or do we just view them as a problem to deal with?
Mephibosheth doesn’t appear in the Bible again, other than regarding a slanderous allegation from Ziba about Mephibosheth’s loyalty, which Mephibosheth denies and David ignores; the rest of his story disappears except that he had a son, Micah, so his line lived on. The meaning of Mephibosheth’s name was ‘from the mouth of shame’ (what were his parents thinking!), but by the end of his story he carries no shame, only honour. Let all of our interactions with children and young people with additional needs be honouring to them too.
Bible passages taken from the New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)
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