Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day
O God, throughout the ages you judge your people with mercy, and you inspire us to speak your truth. By your Spirit, anoint us for lives of faith and service, and bring all people into your forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
You might know the story of David and Bathsheba very well. But in case you don’t, here is the thumbnail version. David’s general Joab was leading Israel’s army against Ammon, a hostile kingdom east of the Jordan River. David remained home in Jerusalem. One hot evening, he was walking about on his roof and spied a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a neighboring house. David inquired about her identity and learned that she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Uriah was one of David’s commanders away fighting with Joab against the Ammonites. How very convenient! David brings Bathsheba to the palace for an overnight fling. Who will ever know?
But it gets complicated. You can get pregnant from a one night stand and Bathsheba did. Clearly, Bathsheba is going to have some explaining to do when Uriah comes home from the war. David does his best to cover his tracks by calling Uriah back from the front on the pretext of getting news about the progress of the war. Then he generously offers him a day of leave from combat hoping that Uriah will go home and spend a wildly romantic evening with Bathsheba. That, in turn, would account for the pregnancy. But Uriah will have none of that, not while his comrades are sleeping in tents on the field of battle. Exasperated and desperate, David resorts to plan B. He sends Uriah back to the front with a letter to Joab. Little does poor Uriah know that he is carrying his own death sentence. The letter from the king directs Joab to place Uriah in a position on the battlefield where he will most certainly be killed. Joab does as David instructs him and Uriah falls in battle. In a magnanimous show of compassion for the fallen war hero, David takes Uriah’s grief stricken widow into his harem as wife. In so doing, he manages to succeed where so many American political leaders consistently and famously fail. David managed to conceal his sexual dalliance from the public. No one is the wiser.
Except God. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” David must have known that from the get go. The king of any other near eastern country would simply have taken Bathsheba without further ado declaring in the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.” If Uriah were to complain (and perhaps even if he did not) the king would have him killed. But Israel was not just any other near eastern country. She was God’s chosen people. In Israel, kings are not gods and they do not rule autonomously. Like every other Israelite, kings are subject to the covenants with Israel’s God. Psalm 72, a royal coronation hymn, spells out exactly how kings of Israel are to rule:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:12-14. David’s conduct is inimical to these high standards. So far from saving the needy when they call, David sent Uriah to his death. So far from redeeming his people from oppression and violence, David abuses his power to work oppression and violence against Uriah whose blood was cheap in his sight. As I said, David must have known that his conduct was at odds with his covenant obligations. Otherwise he would not have gone to such great lengths covering it up. So why did he do it? How could David have concocted such a ruthless and cleaver cover up leaving God entirely out of the equation? Did he really think he could pull the wool over the eyes of the Lord?
There is something more sinister here than overactive hormones. Former President Bill Clinton said of his affair with Monica Lewinski, “I did it for the worst reason possible: because I could.” Granted, it is possible that neither Lewinski’s nor Bathsheba’s hearts were pure as the driven snow. Nevertheless, there is in both cases a huge imbalance of power. In both cases, a man of great authority and influence acts upon a woman of much lesser status with dire consequences. Power and authority seem to have a corrosive effect upon the character of male leaders luring them to abuse that power and exploit people under their command for no better reason than that they can. I suppose that is what the serpent’s temptation boils down to in the end. Why take what God has directed you to let be? “Because you can,” the serpent replies.
Political power is not an inert gas. It is intoxicating. To say that “power corrupts” is putting the matter too mildly. Power distorts the perceptions of those who wield it, giving them illusions of invulnerability and godlike prerogatives. The one who possesses power can easily slide into being possessed by power. Perhaps that is why writer and philosopher Eli Wiesel warns us that, “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” Until we can achieve that, we cannot safely exercise power over the lives of others, even when done with the best of intentions and for their sole good.
I like the story of David-from beginning to end. It reveals both the promises and the dangers of political power. David was capable of extraordinary generosity, forgiveness and mercy. He could also be vain, vengeful and petty. He professed great faith in the Lord and exhibited such faith in many instances throughout his life. But David was also an astute and ruthless politician unafraid to employ the sword against his enemies at home and abroad. The monarchy David built lasted over three centuries. It produced some heroes of faith and some faithless tyrants. In the end, the House of David was unable to lead Israel through the clash of empires into a new beginning. That task was left for the faithful prophets, scribes and teachers who inspired the exiled remnant of Israel with a new vision and gave us the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David through the parable of the stolen sheep is one of the most masterful tales in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does to David precisely what parables are intended to do: draw the hearer into the story, induce him to choose sides between the characters in the story and then expose the hypocrisy reflected in that choice. Jesus will employ the very same strategy against Simon the Pharisee in our gospel lesson for this Sunday. By appealing to David’s sense of justice and arousing his compassion for the poor man in the story, Nathan is now able to place Uriah in the shoes of this poor man David was so ready to defend. There is now only one other pair of shoes left in the parable and David cannot help but recognize that he is standing in them.
David’s repentance is true and heartfelt. Nathan’s assurance of God’s forgiveness is therefore appropriate. Nonetheless, there will be consequences. The lectionary has done a hack job on the reading, omitting some unpleasant but critical information. In 2 Samuel 12:10-12 God declares in judgment against David that the sword he used to strike down Uriah will now strike his house. Just as David has taken Uriah’s wife, so David’s wives will be taken-not in secret as was David’s crime, but publicly to David’s great humiliation and shame. This pronouncement foreshadows the coming rebellion against David’s kingdom led by David’s son, Absalom. The House of David will henceforth be a fractious and divided family right up to the time of David’s death. Like David his father, Solomon will secure the throne only through a series of assassinations and executions. From inception, then, the Davidic monarchy has been founded as much on blood as covenant. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the house of David is portrayed in the books of Samuel and Kings both as a symbol of promise and as an object of idolatrous infatuation.
The prophetic tradition is likewise ambivalent about David. Some prophetic voices see the monarchy as a rebellious departure from God’s intent for Israel. Other prophetic voices, though critical of the Davidic kings and their evil and unjust ways, nevertheless looked for a descendent of David that would exercise his power and authority with justice and in obedience to the covenant. Jeremiah and the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) are examples of this sentiment. The omitted material is therefore important for giving us a balanced view of David and the monarchy he founded. The New Testament takes care in pointing out that the one sometimes called “Son of David,” promises a very different sort of kingdom under the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. For good reason he warns his disciples that “all that take the sword perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52.
The most troubling aspect of this story from the perspective of us moderns is the death of David’s and Bathsheba’s child as a consequence of David’s sin. Even if we assume that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair-an assumption we cannot fairly make in view of David’s status as king and the subordinate position of women in near eastern society-it seems unnecessarily cruel to inflict death upon their child. After all, we don’t choose our parents. Yet it remains a sad fact of life that children do suffer the consequences of their parents’ selfishness, neglect and stupidity. Sinful acts have unpredictable and unintended consequences that sometimes harm the people we most love. The entire human family is inescapably bound together and linked in ways we cannot begin to see and understand. While from a modern scientific perspective the causal link between sickness and death of a child and the adulterous relationship in which it was conceived is problematic, the theological understanding of sin’s insidious propensity for sending destructive ripple effects into the larger human community is sound. We live among the ruinous effects of our ancestors’ sins and our descendents will have to cope with the destruction we have wrought in our own time.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This psalm presents the same issue as our lesson from II Samuel. Just as we do not typically associate the death of an infant with the sin of its parents, so we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
If all you read were the verses set forth in the lectionary, you would never guess that what Paul has to say here is all about meal fellowship. Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14 how Cephas (Simon Peter) came to the church at Antioch where Paul was working among the gentiles. Peter was quite content to eat with these gentile believers and share their table fellowship until the arrival of some Jewish believers from Jerusalem. When these folks came, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the gentiles eating only with the believers from Jerusalem. He probably had the best of intentions. He did not want to offend his fellow disciples from Jerusalem and so cause division within the church. (Similar reasons were given back in the 1960s by churches resisting integration.) We all get along better by keeping our distances.
Paul went ballistic. For him, this was not a matter of whether believers could eat meat from the market place that had been used in pagan sacrifice or whether disciples should or should not marry or whether and under what circumstances one should pray in tongues. In all of these matters Paul urged compromise, patience and acceptance for the sake of maintaining the unity of Christ’s Body. But meal fellowship was a cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus got himself into trouble precisely because he went about with sinners and even ate with them. Jesus’ most intimate expression of fellowship was the last supper he shared with his disciples. To exclude people from the table is to exclude them from the church and the presence of Jesus. To divide the table between Jews and gentiles amounts to a division of the Body of Christ and a denial of its reconciling power. Peter and his fellow disciples from Jerusalem were thus not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Vs. 14.
So now we can understand why Paul launches into his declaration that people are justified not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith in Jesus that constitutes table fellowship. Dividing the table between Jew and gentile therefore reflects not only prejudice. It amounts to a rank denial of the good news that all are made God’s children through faith in Jesus. This is not just a theological disagreement over “justification” in the heady realm of doctrinal abstractions. This is a critical matter of the church’s most central and constituting practice-a matter of life and death. Oneness in Christ is not an ideal. It is a concrete reality grounded in one table to which all are invited and welcomed.
Paul relates this dispute he had with Peter in order to illustrate the insidious effects of that “other gospel,” to which the Galatian church seems to have turned. The “truth of the gospel” is Jesus, not Jesus plus something else. There is room for cultural diversity in the church; there is room for theological disagreement in the church; there is room for differing liturgical practices in the church. But there can be only one savior in the church. When it comes to where faith rests, it is Jesus and Jesus alone. If Jesus is not all, then Jesus is nothing.
From the language he uses, you might get the impression that Paul hates the law and Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul both loved and lived under the Torah throughout his life and ministry. It is rather “works of the law” that Paul hates or, more specifically, works of the law aimed at earning God’s love and salvation. Paul points out in many of his letters that Judaism at its best has always been grounded in the God whose generous, free and undeserved mercy sustains Israel. The church at its worst sometimes forgets this marvelous good news.
This is one of the many instances in the Gospel of Luke in which a Pharisee shows Jesus genuine hospitality and expresses a degree of openness to him. Simon invites Jesus to dinner and it is clear that he has not quite made up his mind what to think of his notorious guest. But he has clearly formed some very firm opinions about the woman who appears in this story to anoint Jesus’ feet. In all likelihood, the dinner took place in a sheltered, but open air setting where people from off the street might wander in. Even so, it would have been highly inappropriate for a woman to enter unaccompanied into a gathering of men. Most of the commentaries I have read assume that the woman was a prostitute, but none of them have given me any convincing reason to draw that conclusion myself. The gospel refers to her merely as a “sinner.” At least one commentator points out that this could mean merely that she was the wife of an impious or irreligious man. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott), p. 122. Thus, her being labeled a “sinner” might be a reflection on her social status rather than her character. In either case, Simon views her as unclean and untouchable.
Simon is at a loss to understand how Jesus, who is purported to be a prophet, fails to see that the woman touching him is a sinner-something that is obvious to him. He therefore concludes that Jesus could not possibly be a prophet. But it turns out that Jesus knows more than Simon supposes. Jesus is keenly aware of where sin is residing and so, in the tradition of Nathan, poses a parable to Simon. Two debtors owed their creditor a sum of money. The first owed a substantial amount, the second only a small sum. The creditor forgave both debts. “So,” Jesus asks Simon, “which of the two will love him more.” Like David, Simon is boxed into giving a response that will trap him. “I suppose,” he replies, “the debtor who was forgiven more.” Jesus has Simon where he wants him. Now he can contrast the woman’s lavish affection with Simon’s quite proper but strictly formal hospitality. Simon discovers that Jesus is in fact a prophet. Not only does he know the woman’s heart better than Simon, but he also knows Simon better than Simon knows himself.
And there is more. The guests and onlookers marvel when Jesus declares to this woman that her sins are forgiven. “Who is this that even forgives sins?” vs. 49. That is an understandable question. Forgiveness of sin is the prerogative of God alone. See, e.g., Mark 2:7. Luke is pressing the question of Jesus’ true identity here. Simon and his guests do not know the answer to that question, but the implication is that the woman does. Her faith, that is, her assurance that Jesus would receive her and accept her has been vindicated. Her confidence that Jesus can and does in fact offer her forgiveness of sin has inspired the love so evident in her lavish kindness toward him.