Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

John D. Rockefeller, an Ohio native, founded Standard Oil.  Rockefeller was at one point the world’s richest man and the first ever American billionaire.  Considering that he was a billionaire in the early 1900’s, we have to regard him, in inflation-adjusted terms, as one of the richest human beings in modern history. When a reporter once asked him, “How much money is enough?” He responded, “Just a little bit more.”

The hunger of the human heart is deep. This is what we discover already at an early age. This hunger drives us. It does not let us rest until we satisfy it. It can be a constructive force in our lives, motivating us to pursue important life goals. On the other hand, it can and, to a greater or lesser extent, will be a destructive force in our lives. The heart is unruly; it is disturbed by passions; it is disordered by sin. This too is what we discover already at an early age. That is just a reality in a fallen world. The heart is easily corruptible. That hunger inside us turns into lust and greed. We exchange this partner for a better one, or at least one who promises to satisfy that ravenous hunger. We sell this house to buy a bigger, nicer one. Or we earn another advanced degree, because the last one was not enough. Perhaps these decisions satisfy our hunger momentarily. But soon the discontent, the restlessness returns, and we wonder who we can seduce, what we can do, or what deal we can make next, to still the hunger pangs that gnaw incessantly at our insides.

David too is beset by this same hunger, this same lust. David, the slayer of Goliath, the friend to Jonathan, the loyal servant of Saul, the worshipper of God—this same David shows to us a very different face today. Enticed by his lust, he falls into temptation. Failing to overcome the temptation, he makes a series of decisions that prove catastrophic for his life and for the lives of those around him. 

In the opening scene we see David up on the roof of his palace. Now the roofs of houses in the ancient Near East were flat. People used them as places of recreations in the evening, places to sleep at night, and as places of devotion at all times in between. David’s attention is drawn to what appears to be a woman in a nearby house. He focuses his gaze. He sees that she’s very beautiful, and she’s taking a bath. David’s gaze lingers too long. Captivated by the sight of her naked body, he cannot turn away. He conceives a desire to have her.

Parenthetically, it’s important to note here that it’s not in the looking at the attractive woman (or man), that the problem lies; it’s in the looking too long. To be more precise, there’s a difference between “looking at” and “looking lustfully at.” On this subject, the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

This is valid so far as it goes, but perhaps we can extend it even farther. We can say that, as far as it depends on us, we should avoid those places where the birds are known to fly over our heads. That is, if we are prone to a certain temptation, and we know that it’s bound to arise whenever we are in certain places, then we should not go to those places. If we do, thinking we are strong enough to handle it, sooner or later we’re going to fall. 

David does not heed this wisdom. And since he has the power to make his fantasy come true, he sends his servants to find out who the woman is. Once they inform him, he sends them back to take her from her house. She comes to him, and the deed is done. David commits adultery with Bathsheba.  

The pages of our times are filled with stories about high profile leaders who have fallen. Many are respected, trusted and loved. That is why we are shocked when we hear the news about the scandal; they are the last people on earth we would expect to be involved in an affair. David is a good man. He is on his task, dedicated to his mission, devoted to his God. But seldom is the scandal in which a seemingly good man is caught up an isolated incident. There is usually a history. When David became king in Jerusalem, we are told that he took many new wives and girlfriends. The author of 2 Samuel only notes it without comment. But elsewhere in the Bible we learn that this is not in accord with God’s will for the king. In Deuteronomy 17, we read that the king must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away (17). 

The servicing of a large harem consumes valuable time and energy. There is need for damage control to handle all the gossip that inevitably spreads. All of it is a distraction from the central concern of the king. He becomes more preoccupied with maintaining the peace in his family and court than with defending and extending the kingdom that God entrusted to him (Robert Barron). This became true of David. After his affair with Bathsheba, he would never again know peace in the royal household. And after the reign of his son Solomon, his kingdom broke apart, never again to be reunited.

What our parents always told us proves true. Actions have consequences. Bathsheba announces to David that she is pregnant. The law of God is clear about the fate of those caught in adultery. In Deuteronomy 22, we read: “If a man is caught with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who went into the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel” (22). But David here does what countless powerful men before and after him do: instead of coming clean and confessing what he has done, he attempts to cover it up. These men are willing to sacrifice the truth to keep their power and maintain their public image.

We have referred before to the snowball effect of sin. One lie leads to the telling of another and then to another until it becomes extremely stressful to keep the story straight. We lie awake at night in fear that we will be found out, that at least one person will see an inconsistency in our story and expose us. And so we have to continue to scheme to keep people deceived.

David sends for Uriah the Hittite, the husband of Bathsheba, from the battlefield. David does not want to arouse suspicion, so he talks to him as one soldier to another, pretending to be interested in what is happening on the battlefield. Then he orders him to go down to his house to wash his feet (2 Sam. 11:8). 

If we don’t know Hebrew slang, then we’ll probably be confused by this order that David gives to Uriah. “Feet” in Hebrew is a euphemism for male genitalia. What David is telling Uriah to do is to go home and sleep with his wife. Obviously, David is confident that in arranging a romantic evening for Uriah and Bathsheba, he will alleviate suspicion that anyone but Uriah is the father of the child. No doubt there has been talk already about the affair in David’s court. To ensure that the couple will be in a relaxed mood, David even has a gift sent to their home.

But David’s plan does not work. He chose the wrong man to defraud. Uriah is a loyal soldier, true to his nation and to her God. Deuteronomy 23 instructs soldiers to abstain from relations with their wives when they are engaged in battle. So instead of going home to his wife, Uriah chooses to sleep at the entrance of the king’s palace with his fellow soldiers, guarding the king and the royal household.

Here Uriah stands in contrast to David. David stays home from battle to indulge his sensual appetite in an illegitimate way, while Uriah denies himself legitimate relations with his wife so he can stay committed to the battle.

The contrast is developed even more in the subsequent exchange between Uriah and David. Uriah protests that he cannot go to his own house when the ark of God and the soldiers are in tents. Consider David’s zeal earlier to build a temple for the ark. He was dismayed that while he lived in a palace of cedar, the ark of God stayed in a tent. Uriah here embodies the very values that David embodied when he was at this best, but now does not care (Robert Barron). This is what happens. Passion derails us, clouds our judgment, and makes us surrender what we hold most dear. Passion has turned David into a very different man than he was before.

Uriah’s reason for his refusal exposes the darkened heart of the king and undermines his plan to cover up the affair. In an act of desperation David keeps Uriah back from the battle and invites him to a party at the palace. This is plan B. David makes sure that Uriah gets drunk in the hope that, with his blood inflamed by the alcohol, he will stumble home and go to bed with his wife.

Again, the plan is foiled. As dutiful as before, Uriah chooses to spend the night at the front entrance of the palace, with the rest of the king’s servants. The tragic irony of this action appears in the subsequent verse. While Uriah is dedicated to protecting the king’s life, the king is concocting a plan to take Uriah’s life. The tragedy is amplified when we see that David has Uriah himself deliver his own death sentence to Joab, the commander of Israel’s forces.

In fifteen verses this great king who always did what was “right and just for all his people” breaks at least 3 of the 10 commandments. Lust leads to an abuse of power, which leads to adultery, which leads to deception, which leads finally to murder.

We spoke at the beginning of this deep hunger in the human heart. David’s story is unsettling, not because it is so sordid, but because, if we are honest, we see in our own hearts what was in his. We have experienced in our own hearts this hunger and its corruption—this movement from hunger to lust and greed. And as a result we have done things we now regret.

But whether or not we learned from our experience, the hunger is still there. To diagnose the problem, as we have tried to do this morning, does not provide the remedy.

This problem is universal; it affects every human being born into the world. It is interesting to study how philosophies and religions have sought to come to terms with it. Stoicism, for example, teaches its followers to purge the heart of its passions, to make it hard against the arrows of misfortune, so that it may remain undisturbed in all circumstances. Buddhism is based on a sermon that the Buddha gave at a place called Deer Park. The foundation of the Buddha’s teaching lies in what Buddhism calls the four noble truths: Life is pain; the cause of pain is desire; the solution is the extinction of desire; there are ways to extinguish desire.

Christianity is different. It does not deny the hunger, the desire. It does not teach people to extinguish it. On the contrary, it teaches people that it can be satisfied.

In our gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day we find Jesus concerned to feed hungry people who have thronged to him from far and wide. Earlier we were assured that it is God’s will to strengthen us in our inner being, to root us in the love of Christ, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. And in the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus teaches us that God is the generous provider who satisfies our hunger. God demonstrates this above all in giving to us his only Son, the Bread of Life, which he gives for the life of the world. Whoever eats this bread will never go hungry. When we experience that in Christ God satisfies our deepest hunger, we find in the love of Christ more than enough to satisfy us. Amen.

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