Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

We say of God that he’s a God of love, and that’s true. But it’s also true to say that God is a God of truth. He’s a God of love and truth.

 

We cannot say the same of ourselves. For us love and truth can be separated. Indeed, we believe that under certain circumstances, they are incompatible. We decide to choose one at the expense of the other, because we are convinced we cannot have both.

 

Consider, for example, the phenomenon of self-love. Therapists and life coaches tell us that self-love is the foundation of happiness. If we cannot love ourselves, then we should not expect that anyone else will. Conversely, if we love ourselves, then we can welcome love into our lives. At the very least, we will feel calmer, happier, and more grounded.

 

This advice is not wrong. But it does not always appreciate the difficulties. Self-love does not easily accommodate the uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Thomas Merton observed that we cannot love ourselves when we do not see good in ourselves. That helps explain why we resist bringing into awareness the bad things we have done. We suppress, exclude, justify or project them onto another. We say that it is because of the betrayal, abuse or trauma we suffered that we made these choices. We say that it is because of what happened to us that we fell into this lifestyle, that we developed this addiction or pattern of behavior.  

 

Now we don’t discount this. Far from it. We may have suffered terrible things at the hand of others through no fault of our own. And what they did to us, or neglected to do for us, has set our life on a course that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. And yet when it comes to personal responsibility, we seldom really own it. We don’t say: “I chose to do this and not that.” We don’t say: “It could have turned out otherwise for me and for those around me if I had done the right thing.”

 

The Old Testament lesson for this Lord’s Day portrays for us this human tendency in the person of King David. Before the prophet Nathan comes to him, there is no indication that David owned what he did. We refer here to his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. He appears to have suppressed it, excluded it from conscious awareness. He goes on with his life as though he’s done nothing wrong. Proverbs tells us of the way of the adulterous woman. “She eats and wipes her mouth and says: “I have done nothing wrong” (30:20). We can be egalitarian here and say that this applies no less to the adulterous man. It certainly applies to David. He marries Bathsheba and begins a family with her as though he has done nothing wrong.

 

But even if David is able to consign his past to oblivion, he cannot remove it from God’s sight. His God is the one from whose sight nothing in all creation is hidden. His God is the one who forms the hearts of all and considers everything they do. We have to add here that this means all, even those of kings. Often powerful people in high places believe that herd morality does not apply to them. They believe they are beyond good and evil and have the right to rule others for their own purposes. But God is no respecter of persons. To him the high and the low are on level ground. There is no distinction between the weak and the powerful. And God is a king more powerful than David. None can manipulate or intimidate God. Earlier David did his sending here and there to accomplish his nefarious scheme, as we saw last time. But now it is God who does the sending. He sends Nathan the prophet to confront David with what he’s done. 

 

In response to the divine commission, Nathan simply comes to the king and speaks. He didn’t ask David’s permission or consult him about his schedule ahead of time. His speech is not introduced by words of deference, not is it delivered in the formal language of court ceremonial. It is uttered with serenity, confidence, and authority. In this regard, as Bishop Robert Barron notes, Nathan stands in the tradition of Samuel, and he also anticipates the parts played by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, and Hosea. They were all “confronters of kings, troublers of the consciences of the powerful.”

 

Note what Nathan does. Or rather what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t confront David directly with what he’s done. Instead, he tells David a story, a parable. Why would he do this?  When people come to us to tell us they don’t approve of what we’ve done, or how we’re living our lives generally, we tend to tune them out. We don’t really listen to what they have to say. We may even resent them for presuming to judge us. If we’re going to come to the truth, we have to see it for ourselves. The parable come to us indirectly. It invites us into the world that it creates. It does so because it wants us to see ourselves somehow in the characters and their actions in that world. We have to connect the dots for ourselves. At least that’s the intention. Nathan’s intention in telling the parable is for David to see for himself the truth revealed in it. 

 

Nathan’s parable is about abuse of power. The rich man has more sheep than he will ever need. And the poor man has one little ewe lamb, whom he loves. It even eats and drinks at his table, and sleeps in his arms. Nathan here uses the same verbs that David used when he commanded Uriah to eat and drink and sleep with his wife.

 

One day a traveler comes to town to visit the rich man. In keeping with the hospitality codes of the time, the rich man was obligated to prepare a meal for the visitor. But instead of choosing an animal from his own herd, he seizes the poor man’s one lamb, slaughters it, and prepares it for his guest. Again, Nathan uses the same verb used earlier to describe David’s seizing of Bathsheba.

 

In telling the parable, Nathan’s intention is to draw David into its world so he can see himself in the rich man, as we have already suggested. But David does not allow himself to be drawn in, at least not at first. His resistance to the truth is strong. He assumes instead Nathan is describing an actual incident. In ancient Israel, people brought their cases before the king and expected a ruling. David is acting the part of the king and gives a ruling. He knew that the proper penalty for the theft of a sheep in Israel is a fourfold payment (Exodus 22:1). But he also expresses his moral outrage. A thief this heartless deserves to die! But in condemning the rich man in the parable, he is condemning himself.

 

David is still blind to what he has done. Nathan has to connect the dots for him. “You are the man!” We are not told in the text, but could it be at this point that David sees the truth for himself! Could this be the moment of recognition? Does he now see himself in the rich man, even before Nathan pronounces sentence?

 

After the sentence, there is no negotiation, no debate. There is no attempt on David’s part to explain or justify himself. The king who commands his subjects and even executes those who bring him unwelcome reports—this same king is now silent and submissive as Nathan shows him what his deeds will result in.

 

When we reflect on this sentence on David, we see a strict law of karma at work, a balancing of actions and consequences. David’s sin was violence against the household of Uriah. Hence violence will boomerang back on his own household:  brother against sister, brother against brother, son against father, as will unfold in the following chapters. Robert Barron points out that this is not divine vindictiveness; it is the working out of an iron law according to which violence provokes violence, and betrayal gives rise to betrayal. The Apostle Paul tells the Galatians that a man reaps what he sows. Barron observes that since we are all connected by ties whose roots go very deep, our negative behavior necessarily has a ripple effect on others in all directions. This was true in David’s world; it is true in our world today.

 

“You are the man!” It is God who speaks to David through the prophet Nathan. We have already seen in David our tendency to suppress the truth. We do not want to bring it to the light. It is too painful to face. That is why we don’t hear God’s voice. For us God is still on mute.

 

But God does not address to us these words because he wants to crush us, because he wants to bring the hammer down and smash us to pieces. He does so because he wants to heal and forgive and restore. This is what we meant when we said earlier that God is a God of love and truth.

 

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther taught that God’s word comes to us in the twofold form of law and gospel, judgment and grace. The law calls us to come to ourselves, to be honest with ourselves. It calls us to own our stuff. Only then can we hear and receive the message of grace that comes to us through the gospel. “You are the man!” or “You are the woman!” is not ultimately a sentence of condemnation. It is a designation of the recipient of God’s grace. “You are the one on whom God bestows grace, the grace that heals and forgives and restores.” In this connection, Luther also said, somewhat paradoxically, that if you are not a sinner, then you better become one, because it is only on sinners that God bestows grace.

 

The gospel lesson for today follows up on the account of the feeding of the five thousand recorded earlier in John 6. You will remember the sequence of events there: recognition that there is not enough to eat, Jesus’ instruction to feed the people anyway, incredulity on the part of the disciples, and the miraculous provision of food, with enough left over.

 

After the people ate, Jesus set out and crossed to the other side of the sea. He is not there for long, however, before some who were there at the spectacular feast track him down. Naturally, the miracle prompted them to go after him to find out who he really is. Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them. The bread has a deeper meaning. It points to Jesus who is the true bread from heaven for the life of the world.

 

Jesus is the grace of God embodied. Grace is gift. Grace, especially God’s grace, is generous, abundant, and overflowing gift. Recall that after feeding the crowds, the disciples picked up enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets. This is meant to teach us about the abundance of God’s grace. This made an impression on the Apostle Paul. He’s able to say that “where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more.”

 

After Nathan pronounces sentence, David responds: “I have sinned against the Lord.”  But David does not die. God forgives him. God’s grace is greater than David’s sin, than our sin. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

 

How are we to respond to such a gift? We express our gratitude to the giver. Gratitude wells up within us when we see and receive the gift. It is implied in the very word Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

 

We should already know that in several church traditions the act of Communion, which we are about to undertake, is called Eucharist. We come to the table then with thanksgiving. We see in the bread of the Lord’s Supper the abundance of God’s grace. It is grace greater than our sin. Let us, then, come to the table with a conscience at peace with itself and a heart that is grateful to God. Amen.  

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