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.
Uriah the Hittite died bravely, making the ultimate sacrifice for his nation. No doubt he was buried with full military honors. Perhaps King David himself honored the war hero’s act of courage with his presence at the funeral. Maybe he even gave a speech extolling Uriah’s selfless act of bravery and calling upon all Israel, not merely to praise this great man, but to emulate his devotion to his country. Then, in a magnanimous show of generosity and compassion to the family of the fallen warrior, King David takes Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, who is with child, into his harem. What a fine example of support for the families of slain veterans who have given so much! No doubt the whole affair inspired the public with patriotic pride and determination to support David’s war effort against Ammonites.
That, in any event, was the narrative David had composed for the public. Perhaps he half believed it himself. We all have a tendency to lie to ourselves about ourselves. When uncomfortable with what we have said, done or experienced, we concoct soothing narratives that justify ourselves, alternative realities in which we are the innocent victims and the wrongs we have done are really the responsibility of someone else-often the one we have harmed. “If he weren’t so damned arrogant…If she had just minded her own business…If my wife had respected and appreciated me half as much as my co-worker…If the company had treated me fairly….” So also I suspect that David was up to the same sort of psychic gymnastics. Perhaps he blamed Bathsheba. What did she think would happen when she went out on her roof buck naked to bathe? Or perhaps he blamed Uriah. Didn’t he understand how lonely a woman gets when her husband is away on a lengthy deployment? To be fair, Uriah did have a tendency to put devotion to his military service above all else, including his wife-and that turned out to be his undoing. See II Samuel 11:6-15.
In any other near eastern nation, David would not have had to go to such lengths to cover his tracks. A Canaanite king was considered a deity. If he fancied a woman, it mattered not whether she was married to someone else. His wish was her command. Not so in Israel. In this peculiar nation, there was a covenant that governed both king and people. No one was above the commandments of Israel’s God-not even the king. That is why David had to know from the get go that his deeds were inimical to his role as God’s anointed, the defender of the covenant. It is practically impossible to live peacefully with these two very dissonant selves: the man of God you are expected to be and the adulterous and murderous man you are. So David climbed into the fabricated story he had fashioned thinking that life would go on for him exactly as before. God’s favor would continue to be with him and success would meet him at every turn.
But the prophet Nathan knew things were not what they seemed. Somehow, Nathan saw through the false narrative. That is what prophets do. They penetrate the fantasies in which we try so hard to live. They tell us the ugly truth we so desperately try to conceal. The task of a prophet is not an easy one. People don’t appreciate being unmasked and exposed. They don’t like having the mirror of truth held up in front of their eyes. David had become so wedded to his web of lies that he could no longer recognize himself in Nathan’s parable of the old man and his ewe lamb. Instead, he made up a new role for himself as the old man’s avenger, the white knight coming into the story from the outside to set things right. Nathan has to show David that he is already a player in the drama-and not the hero he fancies himself. The parable, once interpreted for David in a four word sentience, does its work. David can no longer hide from the truth. He knows himself now to be the very man he would have sentenced to death.
The other prophet we meet in our lessons is none other than Jesus. He, too, sees beneath the fabric of lies through which Simon, his dinner host, views the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. For Simon, the woman is a “sinner” and Jesus, as a prophet, ought to be aware of that. Just exactly what made this woman a sinner in Simon’s eyes is unclear. We tend to think of sin strictly in moral categories. But that is not always the way it is used in the scriptures. This woman could have been sinful merely by association. Perhaps she was married to a man whose job (such as working with leather) made him perpetually ritually unclean. Or she might have been the wife of a gentile. Whatever her transgression may have been, Simon cannot see past the convenient label, “sinner.” Jesus seems entirely unconcerned with this woman’s sins, whatever they might have been. He focuses rather on her kindness, hospitality and compassion. The truth about this woman is that she is one who loves and believes in Jesus.
Like Nathan, prophets deconstruct the myths we believe about ourselves and which conceal from our consciences the harm we inflict upon each other. Like Jesus, prophets help us to see beyond the lenses of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, legal status, religion and political party affiliation that distort our perception of the neighbor Jesus calls us to love. God give us prophets and ears with which to hear them!
Here’s a poem by Adrienne Rich that talks about our struggle to maintain the illusion of “innocence.”
A white woman dreaming of innocence,
of a country childhood, apple-blossom driftings,
is held in a DC-10 above the purity
of a thick cloud ceiling in a vault of purest blue.
She feels safe. Here, no one can reach her.
Neither men nor women have her in their power.
Because I have sometimes been her, because I am of her,
I watch her with eyes that blink away like a flash
cruelly, when she does what I don’t want to see.
I am tired of innocence and its uselessness,
sometimes the dream of innocence beguiles me.
Nothing has told me how to think of her power.
Blurredly, apple-blossom drifts
across rough earth, small trees contort and twist
making their own shapes, wild. Why should we love purity?
Can the woman in the DC-10 see this
and would she call this innocence? If no one can reach her
she is drawing on unnamed, unaccountable power.
This woman I have been and recognize
must know that beneath the quilt of whiteness lies
a hated nation, hers,
earth whose wet places call to mind
still-open wounds: her country.
Do we love purity? Where do we turn for power?
Knowing us as I do I cringe when she says
But I was not culpable,
I was the victim, the girl, the youngest,
the susceptible one, I was sick,
the one who simply had to get out, and did
: I am still trying how to think of her power.
And if she was forced, this woman, by the same
white Dixie boy who took for granted as prey
her ignored dark sisters? What if at five years old
she was old to his fingers splaying her vulva open
what if forever after, in every record
she wants her name inscribed as innocent
and will not speak, refuses to know, can say
I have been numb for years
does not want to hear of any violation
like or unlike her own, as if the victim
can be innocent only in isolation
as if the victim dare not be intelligent
(I have been numb for years): and if this woman
longs for an intact soul,
longs for what we all long for, yet denies us all?
What has she smelled of power without once
tasting it in the mouth? For what protections
has she traded her wildness and the lives of others?
There is a porch in Salem, Virginia
that I have never seen, that may no longer stand,
honeysuckle vines twisting above the talk,
a driveway full of wheeltracks, paths going down
to the orchard, apple and peach,
divisions so deep a wild child lost her way.
A child climbing an apple-tree in Virginia
refuses to come down, at last comes down
for a neighbor’s lying bribe. Now, if that child, grown old
feels safe in a DC-10 above thick white clouds
and no one can reach her
and if that woman’s child, another woman
chooses another way, yet finds the old vines
twisting across her path, the old wheeltracks
how does she stop dreaming the dream
of protection, how does she follow her own wildness
shedding the innocence, the childish power?
How does she keep from dreaming the old dreams?
Source: Your Native Land (c. 1986 by Adrienne Rich, pub. by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Adrienne Rich was born 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and her mother a concert pianist. She excelled academically and graduated Radcliff University in 1953. A thoroughgoing feminist, Rich wrote extensively on sexism and the ideologies that perpetuate it. She argues that gender relationships are informed and distorted by violent mythologies of male dominance. What we need, she maintains, are “new myths [that] create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm [between the sexes] but heal it.” You can find out more about Adrienne Rich and read more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation Website (from which the above quote is taken).
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 descendants 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.