The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
I suppose it's just a dirty business – politics. One's gotta do what one's gotta do to survive, to stay ahead in the polls. If you work hard enough at it, close your eyes and hold your nose, you can justify just about anything, don't you think? And that is the way to the top – or so so many fallen princes have reasoned before their collapse. And, there is no doubt about it: this is a collapse.
Today we join the episode already in progress – this sordid tale found in the second book of Samuel. A punchline with no set-up; an ending with no beginning is what we have today. So, I suppose, we'll need a little backstory.
It is in some ways your typical story of the corrupting influence of power. The powerful man in this tale, King David, exerts his considerable, unchecked power to take what he wants – to fulfill his basest desires, to satisfy his dark, perverted fantasies. His power, his success, his popularity, her body: they serve as the justification for his evil urges. Maybe he thinks he deserves her; maybe he thinks she deserves it – for being a woman, for bathing near a window, for exciting him so much.
And so the popular king, the most powerful man in the kingdom, issues his order. “Bring her to me. I will have her tonight.” He knew she was married. He knew she had no power or means to resist the King's decree. There are many forms of rape – and many ways in which rapists justify their actions.
Only there was a problem. This was supposed to be a one-night fling for the king. Just acting out a little fantasy. It is stressful being the king. I deserve this, perhaps he reasoned. She should be honored, perhaps he reasoned. No one who matters will ever find out, perhaps he reasoned. Only she got pregnant – which was not in David's plan.
Rather than repent at this point, David worked hard to cover his tracks. First he brought Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, back from the battlefield and tried to convince him to have sex with his wife. You know, so it would look like the baby was his and not David's, so no one would ask questions. That plan didn't work. Uriah was too loyal to his king, the king who, unbeknownst to him, took advantage of his wife, and too dedicated to his fellow soldiers.
Relentless, David did not quit on the cover-up. Politics is a dirty business. There are poll numbers to prop up. There is an image to protect. There are consequences to dodge. Never mind the victim whose life is falling apart with each new stretch mark – carrying in her womb the child of the man who used his coercive power to force her to violate her marriage vows and her God's Law. What really matters is that the king not be embarrassed by a scandal – especially a sex scandal. Those are difficult to shake.
On to plan B: kill the husband and take his wife. And that is what King David does. He sends Uriah to the front lines, to certain death. Generous as he is, King David gives Uriah the privilege of dying a hero's death. Maybe David was so kind as to present a medal of honor to his war widow, before taking her as his wife a few days later.
David, you gotta give it to him: he did it. He got away with it. He forced a woman into his royal bed, got her pregnant, killed her husband, married his victim, and saved his face. No harm, no foul – I mean, at least to his political image. Plenty of harm: to Bathsheba, to her murdered husband. But he was important; they weren't. If you put some political spin on it, he's resourceful, a problem solver, he is cool in a crisis.
It's actually pretty unbelievable that this story even survived; it is devastating to one of the most prominent figures in the Bible. And that is probably why Jews and Christians have spent centuries trying to bury this story, trying to spin it in David's favor, to protect his image. And so Bathsheba has been called a slut; David is portrayed as the victim of a woman's charm. Even the death of Uriah has been pinned to Bathsheba and her seductive ways.
This should be shocking, but it's not. It still happens; we hear about it all the time: blame the victim; protect the privileged perpetrator. It happens with this story; it happens in our world, in our country, in our neighborhoods. It's an old story and also it's someone's new story – every day. Some things never change.
Neither does the fact that God sides, here and always, with the victim. God sides with the one who is powerless, with the one who is violated, with every victim of hatred and violence. God does not buy into the spin; God does not turn a blind eye when the perpetrator is important or powerful. Maybe no one else knew what David did; maybe the political system could protect him and then justify his actions if necessary; maybe he was above the law and she was a nobody. Maybe nobody else really cared.
But God cared. God cared about Bathsheba and about Uriah and, because God is always way too merciful, even about David. And that is why God sends Nathan to David. And that is the story we heard today.
Nathan was God's broken heart. He risked his life to carry God's fierce lament into a dangerous place; he risked his life for the sake of God's justice and God's truth. He risked his life for a dead soldier and a rape victim and a God who was in mourning. King David proved in this story that he was willing to go to great and terrible lengths to protect his political reputation. And so Nathan walked into the throne room, probably with shaking hands and knocking knees, and in his very clever and creative way, he dug up the truth David had so carefully buried. The prophet uncovered the bodies, those silently screaming to be heard. And he forced David to stare straight into the darkness of his own heart.
And it was David who levied the verdict. He found himself guilty. He found himself deserving of death. Although, I'm sure he is not alone, because when the facts are laid out, we find him guilty too – worthy of our ire and disgust.
David is despicable and Nathan is a hero. I read this story and I love it. I am so impressed by the prophet's courage; I am so impressed by his clever wisdom. I am so impressed with his creativity. I am so impressed with his obedience to God, his absolute devotion to his calling and ministry. I'm so impressed with his devastating take down. He crushes David and it feels good – because David deserves it.
And I read this story, and I want to be that Nathan. I want be that righteousness mouthpiece for God's justice. I want to crush all of those nasty sinners – because they deserve it. And I know I am not alone, because I've read some blogs. We're a world of prophets ready to destroy the evil doers in our midst.
And it's understandable: everybody wants to be the hero, the good guy. David is terrible in this story; of course, we prefer to identify with Nathan. Nathan is the hero in this story – the righteous one. King David is the villain – the sinner. But the truth is: our nation, the Church, our own hearts, are both. We are both sinners and saints. There is always some David in there. One scholar writes, “[The lesson of this story] is that righteousness and sin exist side by side even within the covenant community. Thus the church is never in the position of selecting only one of these roles. It is called to proclaim God's judgment on all that opposes God's desire for justice and fullness of life, but it is also required to receive and acknowledge judgment for its own participation in the conditions that create brokenness.”1
And we are all participants. Sometimes it is things done; sometimes it is those things we leave undone. And the problem is not the “party culture” or the political climate; it is not our lack of time or our lack of money; the problem is not any of the excuses we use to justify our bad behaviors, our hateful ideologies, our lack of love and kindness. The problem is that we want to be Nathan but we are all harboring more David than we care to admit. And so we don't admit – until we are exposed. We would much rather cover our tracks than expose the dark corners of our hearts to God.
But God knows our hearts. And so God gives us prophets: brothers and sisters willing to call us on our stuff; God gives us these holy stories through which the Holy Spirit can wake us up. God knows our hearts. And so God hears our confessions, hears our cries for forgiveness, hears our laments. God knows our hearts. And so God forgives us – even of our most shameful sins. God knows our hearts and God still loves us.
But that's not it. We still have to work hard for reconciliation with those we hurt. And we still have to face the consequences for our actions. And we might never totally get it right. But we still have to try. Because even in our brokenness, we are the ones through whom God speaks the Good News into the world.
God is calling us to tell the truth and speak for justice. But the truth is, the world doesn't need another self-righteous voice; there are already a lot of them. And honestly the Church has so often proved to be a bunch of judgmental hypocrites that our voice means nothing, it just rings hollow. And that is too bad because the world does need to hear the Good News with which God has entrusted us – a big dose of truth in a world of spin, a flood of love to drown out the violence and hatred that is all too common.
Our Good News begins is a strange place: we are sinners. We Christians, we're not better than anyone else; we're all in the same boat; we all have plenty of sinner mixed into our righteous. It is a humbling message – welcome, liberating, but humbling. But there's more to it: the Good News gets good. We are sinners, but we're sinners saved by the grace of a way too merciful God who really, really loves us – loves each and every person. And that is the truth that the world needs to hear from us, longs to hear from us. And it is honest – so they might even listen.
1The New Interpreter's Bible: Vol 2, 1294-5.