the story’s the thing wherein to catch the conscience of the king

Last week, David, the shepherd boy, musician, warrior, king—
the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14-15),
rather thoroughly and completely fell off his pedestal.
Or, rather, his undisciplined self-indulgence
caused him to teeter on his pedestal,
and his manipulative arrogance caused him to sway precariously,
and his ruthless disregard for those who trusted him—
his utter abuse of power and authority
finally yanked him off right in front of us.
Remember?
It started bad and kept getting worse.

And the great hero—one of the greatest heroes of the Bible,
he into whose line Jesus would be born,
as the Son of David—
David was revealed to have feet of clay,
and if you don’t know where that image and that expression come from,
well, then you need to come to Vacation Bible School starting tonight
(Daniel 2:31-33, 41-43)!

But, at the end of our text last week,
David was also thinking he had successfully
covered up all his indiscretions.
Remember?
After his one night stand
(which was all he had ever wanted out of Bathesheba),
when he got word from her that she was pregnant,
he couldn’t get Uriah to go home to Bathesheba on two occasions
two subsequent nights,
so that Uriah might think the child conceived was his.
So on the third day,
in his third attempt to cover up …
David arranged for Uriah to be killed
sending him to the front lines of the battle with the Ammonites
to the very walls of the besieged city Rabbah
some 20 miles east of the Jordan along the headwaters of the Jabbok.
He ordered Joab to order Uriah to the front and then have the others fall back
leaving Uriah alone facing the enemy (2 Samuel 11:15).
Now it didn’t quite work out that way.
Joab sent Uriah along with others right up to the walls of the city,
and while Uriah was killed in the fighting
some others ended up getting killed as well (2 Samuel 11:17)—
collateral damage, don’t you know.
And Joab, sending word back to David,
it’s very interesting,
it’s first an account of the fighting,
an account of those killed in fighting near the wall,
which was strategically unwise a move,
which both Joab and David knew from past experience.
and Joab told the messenger he sent to David,
now when you tell the king,
if his anger rises and he wants to know
why did you go so near the city to fight,
then you shall say, your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too”
(2 Samuel 11:20-21).
So Joab’s message, in its structure,
emphasizes the lives lost along with Uriah.

Well the messenger didn’t wait for David to maybe get angry,
but tacked the death of Uriah onto his account of the siege.
And David said to the messenger, “Thus you shall say to Joab,
‘Do not let this matter trouble you,
for the sword devours now one and now another …’”
(2 Samuel 11:25).
Cold.
And worse than we know with our translation.
Literally David says, “Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes”
(Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001] 504).
How ’bout that?

What a disgusting story
of disgusting behavior
that keeps getting progressively more and more disgusting.

We heard read this morning though,
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord …”
(2 Samuel 11:27), which again, literally reads differently,
“But the thing David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh”
(Cartledge, 505).
And we anticipate God kicking some royal booty.
And we’re thrilled.
Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
We anticipate justice
as God sends Nathan to David.

Remember David has done most of the sending recently
(2 Samuel 11:3, 4, 14, 16),
but now God sends Nathan.

Wait though!
It didn’t happen right away.
It’s easy to roll from one story right into the next,
but there was enough time for Bathsheba and David to marry—
enough time for a full pregnancy—
enough time for a son to be born.
All the while, David thinking he got away with it—
David maybe not even thinking about it anymore.

So eventually God sends Nathan.
And Nathan tells the king a story—
a simple story—
a powerful story—
a parable.

Nathan tells the story of a rich man and a poor man.
and the rich man, who has vast herds of sheep,
when a guest arrives, despite his vast herds
doesn’t want to give up one—not one of his many lambs,
takes from the poor man the one lamb he has.
That verb, takes—
remember Samuel warning the people of what a king would do?
He would take (1 Samuel 8:11-19).
And David took (same verb) Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:4).
And so the rich man, we learn, served up that stolen lamb to a guest,
and not only is the behavior itself awful,
but using what’s so terrible to begin with
as the appearance of gracious hospitality makes it all the worse.
As we’ve been seeing, just when you think it can’t get any worse,
it does.

But what’s going on with this parable?
It’s not that we’re told anything we don’t know:
David did a bad thing.
We know that.
And it’s not about making sure we know just how bad it was,
this bad thing he did—
a terrible, horrible, awful, no-good, very bad thing—
a revolting, nauseatingly disgusting, vile, atrocious, abominable thing.
We know that too.
Nor is it about someone knowing what he did
when David thought no one knew.
Because we already knew—
before Nathan was sent—before he told his story.
And we knew God knew too.
So what’s going on with this parable?

I read some commentary suggesting the parable
was Nathan’s way of being careful
speaking words of judgment to power.
It’s dangerous, after all, to confront power directly,
so let me tell you a story.
No.
In fact, emphatically rejecting that possibility gets us on the right track.
Nathan’s not at all afraid of what David might do to him.
He’s afraid of what David won’t do to himself.
How ’bout that?

I have suggested before,
considering Jesus’ parables,
that we consider a parable a story
that invites you as hearer (or reader) to locate yourself within it—
to draw a circle of comfort and affirmation around yourself,
only to discover you’re actually now outside the circle you drew!

David responds to the hypothetical situation within Nathan’s story
with the outrage we’ve been feeling about him.
He still doesn’t see.
He still doesn’t make the connection.

“Power is always tempted to live in the illusion
that it is autonomous and self-sufficient.
Powerful people in powerful positions
often imagine that they can define reality
in their own terms”
(Bruce C. Birch, 1 & 2 Samuel: Introduction,
Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s
Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume II
[Nashville: Abingdon,1998] 1294).

David told Joab, “Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes.”
And we have to hold out the possibility
that all that had happened was not evil in David’s eyes—
that he really couldn’t see.
Our capacity for self-delusion is great.
It’s not evil if I do it.
How ’bout that?

And then Nathan rips through his delusion
with two words in Hebrew: “You the man!”
So much for any unwillingness to confront the king!

And how do you think David must’ve felt about Nathan at this point?

All we’re told is that David confesses.
I have sinned against the Lord, he says.
Short and to the point.
Short and powerful, like the parable itself.
One of three short driving sentences in our story:
“I’m pregnant.”
“You’re the man.”
“I have sinned against the Lord.”

He didn’t have to—confess that is.
He had a great p.r. department,
and they didn’t care a thing about right or wrong.
They didn’t care about truth or fiction—
just about how to spin.
And he could’ve spun.
He was still the king—still David, the king.
He could have denied the accusation.
He could have justified his actions.
He could have had Nathan sent to the front lines.

And in verse 15, we read that Nathan went to his own house.
I bet!
Even with the king confessing.
Even with the king repenting.
But we do see that David can still see right and wrong—
even if not at first when it came to him.
How ’bout that?

And so the parable’s not about the prophet of God outing David.
It’s not about the prophet of God condemning David.
It is rather about getting David to condemn his own actions
without spiraling into self-hate—
getting all tangled up in guilt and shame.

And that great psalm of confession
we heard earlier today,
Psalm 51 is possible only because of our text today.
Psalm 51 had to have been written after the events of today’s text.

So what we have, in our text this morning,
interestingly,
is an antithesis to so much of our culture,
even as it constitutes an antithesis
to so much of what many people think of the church.

How do we have an antithesis to our culture?
I just picked up a book called: Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
Fascinating read.
Basically, the author’s non-partisan premise is
that we, as a country, are not interested in hard truths.
We’re interested in heroes and the perception of being the good guys.

The Bible has little interest in idolizing heroes
or in the misperception of us as good guys.
Sociologist, retired professor of education at Harvard, Charles V. Willie writes:
“By idolizing those whom we honor,
we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves….
We fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise”
(quoted in James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
[New York: TouchStone, 2007] 11)
Exactly what the Bible has not done with David.
And Scripture invites us, in the clarity of its depiction of David,
to realize our own sin—
how quickly our own sin can go from bad to worse,
and how God is willing to work with us
if we can but see—
acknowledge—
confess.

Our capacity for self-delusion is great.
And it’s not evil if it’s our policy.
We condemn them for doing what we turn around and do.
From the Scopes trial transcript, we read that
William Jennings Bryan said,
“I do not think about things that I don’t think about.”
To which Clarence Darrow responded,
“Do you ever think about things you do think about?”
(Loewen, 340)

I am more and more afraid of what we as a country do not see,
and do not think about, and will not talk about.
Our Scripture today is about opening eyes
and getting important conversation going—
in love with respect and with hope.

Maybe the only way to tell the truth
is by telling stories.

And how is this parable the antithesis of how the church is perceived?
n research among 16-29 year old non-Christians,
representing 24 million people in our country,
all detailed in a book called UnChristian:
What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity
the Barna group discovered
that 91% of those surveyed said Christianity was anti-gay,
87% said it was judgmental,
and 85% named it hypocritical.
How ’bout that?

The larger story of our text today is not the story of David.
It’s not the story of the monarchy in Israel.
It’s not the golden age of Israel.
It’s not about prophetic judgment.
It’s not about no one being above the will of God.
It’s not about the reality that we all justify evil—
discount it—
explain it away—
reject it—
when it’s us.
It’s about the presence of God who will always see evil
and yet whose will is that even those who have done
terrible, horrible, awful, no-good, very bad things—
revolting, nauseatingly disgusting, vile, atrocious, abominable things,
are offered the opportunity to repent
and to be transformed.

Those 16-29 year olds responding to Barna’s interviews
have picked up on something.
The church has too often become identified
with the voice of condemnation—
which is the easy way out.
Doesn’t require any creativity.
It’s not hard,
and it’s not a blessing.
The way of God is not about condemning—
not even when condemnation is so richly deserved.
That’s totally missing the point.
It’s so easy to judge,
and there’s so much to judge—absolutely!
But Nathan in his story,
like Jesus in so many of his,
creatively—
brilliantly—
invites people to see themselves—
to see their actions clearly,
and to make their own judgment.
How ’bout that?

Our story addresses that deeply troubling tension
between upholding God’s expectations of how to live
along with the command to judge not.
Again, not easy.
And there’s never a guarantee
that the person being told the story
will get it.
And while it may be that the story’s not good enough—
not creative enough—
disguised and pointed enough,
it might also be that the hearer remains oblivious—
that the hearer does not have the courage of David.
That’s not the point.

Uriah died on the shores of what would become the Jabbok,
and God would wrestle with David
into what would become repentance.

David does not—cannot—escape the consequences of his actions.
Violence begets more violence.
He was more right than he could have possibly known
when he sent word back to Joab
the sword devours now one and now another.

We still haven’t learned that.
It was that great and terrible warrior from our own past,
Ulysses S. Grant, who said,
“There never was a time when, in my opinion,
some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword.”

The sword represents always a colossal failure of the human imagination—
of human creativity—
as do words of outright judgment and condemnation—
which always speak more to the speakers’ need to find their own assurance—
to draw that circle of comfort and affirmation around themselves,
than it does manifesting hope
in the possibilities of confession and repentance and transformation.
Those who judge others find more comfort
in what God has said that they feel absolve them
than in what God is doing that requires hard work of them.

The hard work of hope lies not in judgment of others,
or the strongest will always become the arbiter of right and wrong.
Hope lies in repentance,
and so both in those who can tell
and those who can receive mirror stories—
parables.

So Uriah is honored and remembered
less in the satisfaction of righteous punishment
than in hope—
in the possibilities of confession and forgiveness
and relationships restored.

And David named one of his sons Nathan—
his third son with Bathsheba, as a matter of fact.
How ’bout that?

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