But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favour and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.’ Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: ‘Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.’ So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.
Daniel is about living in Empire, not how to survive it. How does one work, eat, and create faithfully? Do you yield to the stimuli around you, or do you uphold the finest and most profound foundations of your belief?
Today’s reading is a lesson about appearances. Daniel and the others are in the palace because they are gifted; the result of the Empire’s assumptions of what makes a model subject (1:4). The powers that be didn’t realise that they are not just pretty faces. Their model giftedness comes with a moral courage that makes them prophetic vessels of the remnant, not educated puppets of the emperor. The powers that be are too slow to understand now, but they soon will.
The ‘palace master’ was equivalent to what was known, in the antebellum era of North American slave plantations, as the house slave or house “negro”. Hierarchically he kept the other slaves in check and was the one channel between the master and the slaves. Yet he, and his guards, were slaves as much as the others – with very limited power.
It is with them that Daniel’s spiritual genius begins to take shape in these verses, as he is able to make an agreement with the palace guard to allow them to eat as vegetarians, inviting them to compare their appearance with those who ate the royal food. Even the Emperor of Babylon cannot mistake the benefits. Even in Empire, compassion can reveal itself if we live faithfully and not merely as survivors.
If you want to make this a lesson on the benefits of vegetarianism, go ahead. I believe it is more poignantly a lesson on the values of peaceful, prophetic action to maintain the sacredness of our humanity in a world that enslaves us. Perhaps the greatest prophetic move here is that compassion ultimately reveals the inherent good in everyone, even our oppressors. The prophetic language begins not with anger and judgement, but with compassion and understanding.
Living Lord, we pray for those doing good for the least of these. But we also pray for those making life for the least of these a living hell. Stretch their hearts toward compassion. For them and ourselves, may You make us prisoners of hope in disoriented times. Amen.
The Rev’d William Young, Minister, Essenside URC Glasgow and Morison Memorial URC Clydebank.