II Samuel 11:26-12:15
The warrior-king is at home. His troops are on the battlefield, defending the land against its most recent invaders, but the king is at home. He’s older now, perhaps a little heavier than he once was, a little slower – still handsome, but a bit softer, certainly less agile and strong. In his younger days he would have been leading the troops, but he’s the king now and no longer needs to go out with his armies; he can monitor the battles from the situation room in the palace. He’s not the man he once was, so perhaps it’s best he’s not embarrassing himself or his officers by displaying his diminished skills for all to see.
If the truth be told, he’s bored. He’s accomplished all he set out to accomplish. He has consolidated the kingdom, built up the holy city, brought justice and peace to the land. No doubt he misses the excitement of battle, to say nothing of the notoriety and public affirmation it brought him. It’s been some time now since the crowds shouted his name: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands!” (I Sam 18:7) He’s missing the thrill of conquest. Ruling and governing has its perks, but it’s not the same.
Until one day, as he’s sipping his morning coffee on the balcony at the break of day, he sees a woman, so beautiful, bathing on a rooftop nearby. And he feels he has to speak with her, to dine with her, to have her for himself. Suddenly there is something new to conquer, a new quest to set out upon. He knows he has the power to make this happen; he needs only give the command – and he does.
Sometime later he receives a message from her hand: she has not seen her husband Uriah for months and now finds herself pregnant with the king’s child; what is she to do? The story descends into a tawdry soap opera from this point forward. The king’s first thought – as it so often is when people of power make serious mistakes – is to cover up his indiscretion. He hatches a plan. He will call Uriah back from the battlefield and get him to sleep with his wife. If no one looks too carefully it will be assumed that the baby is Uriah’s and all will be well. It’s a simple plan; he’s off the hook and no one gets hurt. Except that Uriah is a man of integrity who refuses to indulge in sensuality – even with his own wife – when his fellow soldiers are surviving on meager rations in the trenches and dreaming of home.
When his first plan fails, the king pursues a darker, more dangerous path: ordering Uriah to the front lines and then pulling back the troops to ensure that he is killed. And this evil plan he carries out.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” [Hmm. Rather an understatement, I should say.] All this time the king is convinced that he is acting in secret, that no one knows or suspects what he is up to. But this is an illusion. There is the Almighty God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (BCP, p.355), who has watched these events unfold from the beginning. This all-knowing One now acts, sending Nathan the prophet to speak a word of truth to the king.
The fact that David is blind-sided by Nathan’s story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb indicates just how deeply deluded the king is. He is quite convinced that he has gotten away with his evil scheme; that he has triumphed once again. He doesn’t grasp the obvious parallels with his own story. Imagine that you have stolen your neighbor’s car, and your minister or priest shows up on your doorstep the next day and begins telling you a story about a theft. Wouldn’t you begin to sweat and fidget a bit? Not David. Maybe he was distracted and didn’t pick up the analogy right away, or maybe he had so thoroughly insulated himself from the truth that he really failed to grasp his situation. He certainly doesn’t recognize himself in the story. Instead, he explodes in anger and righteous indignation over a crime that is much less serious than the one he has perpetrated, and Nathan finally has to make it clear to him: “You are the man!”
That human beings are capable of such self-deception should give us all pause. That we are capable of such self-deception should give us pause. Because this story is not just about David; it’s about all of us.
Scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson reminds us of this when he writes:
“This is the gospel focus: You are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about someone else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done. It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, boozy cosmic opinions, religious indignation. That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin, this someone else’s plight. This kind of religious response is worthless,” Peterson maintains: “it’s the religion of the college dormitory bull session, the TV spectacular, the talk-show gossip. It’s the religion of moral judgmentalism, self-righteous finger-pointing, the religion of accusation and blame.”[i]
David failed to see that it was about him. Let’s not make the same mistake. You are the man; you are the woman. And so am I. We are just as capable as David of self-deception, of pride, of covetousness, of greed, of deceit, of lies. We are just as capable of losing sight of God and God’s ways, of talking ourselves into serious misconduct.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” The words of David. Psalm 51. A prayer for all of us.
And here, for all to see, is God’s amazing grace. David’s blind eyes are opened. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says. No sooner has David confessed his fault to Nathan than he hears these words in return, “Now the Lord has put away all your sin; you shall not die” (II Sam 12:13). Oh, there are consequences to David’s actions. His child dies and David himself lives with the remembrance of his transgressions. But God’s grace is evident even here. “The Lord has put away all your sin.”
We may bear the marks of our sins as well, living with their consequences years after the fact. But God is with us in grace, to forgive us, to heal us, to reconcile us, to restore us. Yes, God sees what you do. God knows what you think. God “discerns your thoughts from afar.” And yet God’s judgment is always kind and true and just, and God’s mercy never fails. David’s “I have sinned against the Lord” is met by Nathan’s “The Lord has put away your sin.” Always. You can count on it.
If you need further proof of the ways in which God overcomes evil with good, and brings life out of death, you might turn to the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, in which Matthew lists the lineage of Jesus Christ. His genealogy includes some of the more scandalous figures of the Hebrew Scriptures. Four women are included in the genealogy; all of them are non-Israelites and several carry the taint of sexual scandal. Bathsheba is one of them, and Matthew doesn’t spare his readers the embarrassment of mentioning specifically that the mother of Solomon was “Uriah’s wife.” Ouch. It turns out that Jesus of Nazareth had quite the family tree, and that king’s indiscretion was one giant skeleton in the closet. But Matthew flings open the closet door because he knows that the world needs a Savior who carries with him the message of grace, and this story provides it.
Does knowing that we are covered by grace free us to act as we please? Of course not. We should be keenly aware of our tendency to lose sight of God and of God’s ways from time to time. We should be honest about our capacity for self-deception, our susceptibility to spiritual blindness, our tendency to want to cover up our bad choices with even more bad choices. But we should always remember too that the gospel contains the offer of grace, freely given by a God who continues to love us even when we are least lovable, and welcomes us home when we crawl back covered with the dust of shame and guilt. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found! Was blind but now I see!”
God’s amazing grace, then and now, always and everywhere, given so freely and abundantly to us all. That is what the gospel is all about.
[i] Peterson, Eugene. Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians. (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), p. 185.
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