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.