Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

We know the word “prodigal” from the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a parable about a son who rebels against his father. He demands from him his share of the inheritance, goes to a far country and wastes it in wild living. It was heartbreaking to his father. After he spent all he had, he came to his senses and returns home. He finds his father there waiting, ready to welcome and restore him.

 

David has a prodigal son. His name is Absalom. We have to introduce him first before we consider our first lesson for this Lord’s Day, since we have not come across him before today. Absalom was a leading light in the royal court, a standout, an attractive man with charisma. “In all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (2 Sam. 14:25). The Bible calls attention especially to his thick, full head of hair. He cut it once a year, because it got too heavy for him. When he cut it, he weighed it, and its weight was 200 shekels, which equals 5 pounds. (2 Sam. 14:26). No doubt, the young man stood out above all the rest.

 

But Absalom did not wait to see which of his sons David would choose to succeed him as king. He rebelled and launched a revolt. His intent was to overthrow his father David. How does one do this? He ran a negative campaign ad. Consider our own election season. Advertising is overwhelmingly negative, calculated to smear one’s political opponent and make him look bad. This is what Absalom did. He set up near the city gate and presented himself to the people as a champion of justice, unlike David, whom he accused of failing to live up to the responsibilities of his office. “Listen, David really doesn’t care about you. If he did, he would be here now! I’ll hear what you have to say because I do care. In fact, if I were king, things would be different around here.” This sounds all too familiar to us in our own politically rancorous times.

 

Absalom stole the hearts of the people. He built a base big enough to force David out of Jerusalem. The royal officials now had to calculate the risks. If Absalom should succeed, and they stayed loyal to David, they are doomed. On the other hand, if Absalom’s uprising should fail, and they remain loyal to David, then they will be rewarded.

David’s advisor Ahithophel decided to cast his lot with Absalom. He counseled Absalom to occupy the royal palace and sleep with his father’s concubines. By this brazen act Absalom would show his supporters that he would not reconcile with his father David, but would fight against him until the bitter end.

 

We mention this rather gross detail here because it recalls the content of Nathan’s prophecy, which we learned last time. “I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun” (2 Sam. 12:11). That prophesy was fulfilled through Absalom.

 

David’s situation is pretty bad, but he does not go down for the count. He set up a spy network in Jerusalem and marshaled the forces that remain loyal to him. The stage is set for the final chapter in the Absalom saga, which we have before us today: the last military struggle between the forces of David and the army of Absalom.

 

David knows he has to reign. He has charge of the kingdom God has entrusted to him. That means in this case he has to quell the uprising. It is a terrible burden for him, because it involves waging war against his own people. What makes it even worse is that it’s his own son leading the rebellion against him and his loyal subjects. And yet David does not want harm to come to his son. The prior two chapters detail all that Absalom has done to hurt and ruin David. But despite all this, David only wants him restored. He is only thinking about him as a devoted father does a son. David could not stop loving him.

 

We saw earlier that David is known as a man after God’s own heart. Could not David’s desire to grant clemency to his son reflect God’s own heart? The God of Israel is indeed a just judge. This is what we stressed last time when we reflected on the sentence that the prophet Nathan pronounced on David after his affair with Bathsheba. But at the same time he desires to show mercy. The well-known Psalm 103 gives moving expression to Israel’s experience of God: “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever…. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him…. The unfailing love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:9, 13, 17). We will return to this point at the end of our meditation.

 

We can imagine David’s excruciating mental state on the eve of the crucial battle. If he’s afraid he might lose his throne, he’s even more afraid he might lose Absalom. Before the fighting starts, he tells the commanders that if Absalom falls into their hands, they have to promise to go easy on him for his father’s sake. David’s wish to save the life of his son Absalom creates dramatic tension. Will his orders be followed? The battle is joined in the forest and its outcome is decided rather quickly. The author gives us very little detail. We can only assume that Absalom’s supporters are no match for David’s well-trained troops, who put them to rout. The statement that the forest claimed more of them than the sword is very strange; it’s hard to imagine how that could be. Its function in the narrative, however is clear. It prepares us for the fate that awaits Absalom. 

 

Absalom is riding on a mule. Probably startled by the battle, the animal runs underneath an oak tree. Absalom finds himself caught by the hair in a tangle of branches, while the mule went on without him. We cannot miss the irony here. Once his boast, his thick hair now proves to be his undoing. He hangs suspended between heaven and earth. Again, it is a very strange sight, difficult to imagine. The art featured on the bulletin cover has tried to render it for us. One Bible student suggests that the author means to give more here than a description of Absalom’s physical condition. “Absalom is suspended here between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly helpless, but he is not yet dead” (W. Brueggeman).

 

The moment cannot last. It must resolve itself. The armor bearers of Joab, the commander of David’s forces, end the young man’s life. With the death of Absalom, the revolt is over. All that is left now is to bring report to the king. 

 

At this point, we may remember an earlier scene, when Joab himself brought report to David from the battlefield. It was to tell him that Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, had fallen. Remember that David had given the order to have Uriah stationed at the front line, and then to withdraw from him when the fighting became fierce. We see here David in the same situation, waiting for report from the battleline. Only the news now will be what he does not want to hear. The bad karma that the Bathsheba affair released continues to doggedly pursue David.

 

The Cushite is under the impression that it is news that David does want to hear. He prefaces the report by saying that it is good. I bring you good news. And it is good: “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you” (18:31). But David is only interested in his son. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

 

There is a word play here that we miss in our own language. David is asking about the shalom of his son Absalom. The same word appears in the last two syllables of his son’s name.

 

The word “shalom” is a customary greeting, which Jewish people use to this day. I heard it often when I was traveling in Israel a year and a half ago. But it is one of those words that has a range of meaning. Shalom means health, vitality, prosperity, even salvation and peace. Shalom is the peace that God wants his people to have. It is what David wanted Absalom to have.

 

But again, we have to ask: why should David be concerned about him? Didn’t Absalom take up arms against him? Did he not thirst for his father’s blood? Was he not at the head of an army, seeking to kill his father, that he might wear his crown, which he had already usurped? Why should not David have asked instead: “Is the young man Absalom dead? For if he has been taken out, then peace will return again to my realm, and rest to my troubled life.” But no, peace is what he wanted for Absalom, even at the expense of his own peace. It’s what he never stopped wanting for Absalom, despite the fact that the young man rose up against him.

 

Our lesson concludes with one of the most moving scenes in the whole Old Testament: the king weeps inconsolably for his rebellious son. This is the moment of David’s greatest distress. Earlier we watched David grieve over the loss of Saul and Jonathan. Then he composed a eulogy for them. But now his grief is too much for him. He cannot do anything except repeat the words “Absalom” and “my son,” which occur eight times in only one verse. Any parent who has lost a child can sympathize with David’s grief. But again, what makes David’s reaction spiritually relevant to us is that it is provoked by this particular child, Absalom, who lived in open rebellion against his father.

 

The famous nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon found in the story of Absalom an occasion to admire the determination of a parent’s love. This is what we have tried to highlight in our meditation on this chapter in the story of David’s life. We called Absalom David’s prodigal. We borrowed this word from the parable of the prodigal son. Remember that the father in this parable never wavered in his love for the lost son. His longing for him to come home never ceased. David embodied the father in this parable.

 

Of course, Jesus told this parable to illustrate the nature of God’s love. We can think about this story of David and Absalom in the same way. David in his relationship with Absalom is like God in his relationship with us.

 

At one time we too have been the prodigal son or daughter. Maybe even now we have a prodigal son or daughter, or know someone who does. We should know that God’s disposition towards the prodigal is not changed by his or her rebellion. God’s heart still longs for the return of the prodigal. His will is always to restore the prodigal to the family. And God is patient.

 

That patience is a theme in our gospel lesson. Jesus declares himself to be the Bread of Life sent down from heaven, which one may eat and not die. That is to say, Jesus embodies in himself God’s offer of eternal life to all who will believe in him. But instead of eagerly accepting this offer and placing their faith in him, those who hear him resist it and only complain among themselves. The theme of rejection is a thread that runs through John’s Gospel; indeed, it is a theme that runs through the entire Bible. But in spite of their obstinacy, Jesus continues to teach them. 

 

Jesus tells them they cannot come to him on their own. The Father must draw them. Faith is preceded by a grace that comes from outside us. This grace draws and attracts and heals the heart.

 

This should reassure us, especially during those times when we are troubled by rebellion—both the rebellion we see in others as well as the rebellion we see in our own hearts. We can relax in knowing that God’s love is stronger than our rebellion. Amen.  

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