|2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
By David Grant Smith
2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13-15
One has to wonder, at times, what edification there is to be found in the reading of certain biblical texts in corporate worship! The compilers of the lectionary, no doubt, want to make sure that the average Christian has been exposed to the breadth of the biblical narrative. But the way that certain stories unfold in scripture often leaves the reader (or hearer) with unresolved questions. It might be a very productive and pastoral thing to engage such questions into the sermon for a day when such a passage is used. In this particular story, one has to wonder: if David was the one who sinned, why was the baby born to him the one who would suffer and die (and, indeed, in the verses which follow, this is what happens)? We are also left to wonder why, in the verses omitted by the lectionary (12:11-12), David’s wives would need to suffer at the hands of David’s neighbor, if he was the one who sinned?
One possible way to engage these questions is to explore the ways that all of us are impacted by each others’ actions. None of us are islands! All that we do — for good or ill — has an effect on everyone around us. This becomes especially true when we consider the web of life in a process-relational approach. Though all of us are ultimately responsible for our own actions, none of us are freed from the reality that when we live our lives in such a way as to be unfeeling or unthinking about the way our actions have consequences beyond our own personal experience, it impacts the lives of all other beings with whom we are in relationship. The extreme consequences which were exacted on David’s family (whether literal or metaphoric) help to make that point in mythic proportions. That said, it may be helpful to reassure a congregation struggling with this story in public worship to be mindful of the notion that this story (and many like it in scripture) is a myth — a story which conveys truth, whether it contains historical fact or not. And the truth conveyed by this story is that the way we live our lives impacts others.
Though the story contains horrific imagery, it does contain creativity which begets transformation. The parable concocted by the prophet Nathan used to confront his king about his sinful behavior is brilliant! Nathan’s storytelling abilities convey the truths of David’s sinful acts cloaked in language about how a rich and powerful person was abusive to a poor and vulnerable person. This language, of course, resonates with the language of the Torah which commanded that there be no abuse of the poor in Israel, but that there would be a system of justice which would show compassion and generosity toward the most vulnerable members of society. Once Nathan revealed that the subject of the parable was David, David had already been put into a position of knowing and labeling the abuse and exploitation for what it was. The result was that David was then able to see himself in the role of abuser and exploiter, and he repented.
This story, though unattractive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, can be helpful in exploring some other issues as well. At the heart of those other issues is the idea of evolution — the evolution of human social norms in particular. Social evolution is something which can be celebrated when we read ancient mythic narratives such as this. We can be proud of the fact that so-called “biblical family values” which exploit women and view/treat them as property are no longer the norm; this expresses an older social norm as expressed through polygamy and (in the two omitted verses) the idea that the raping of the members of someone’s family is an acceptable mode of vengeance. We can also celebrate the idea that contemporary society doesn’t hold up the idea that when we sin we are doomed to die because of it (a fear which Nathan knew David had).
Nor do we believe any longer that God strikes down people willy-nilly for their sins — let alone because of the sins of others. The protological biblical writers reflected the world-view of themselves and their contemporaries by equating illness, death, and even poverty, as being the result of sin; “if bad things happened to you or your family, you obviously are a sinner,” was the way that worked. We don’t understand the world as operating in that kind of cause/effect relationship any more. In all these things, we can see the trajectory of human social evolution — always being drawn creatively forward by the lure of God’s primordial nature toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love. When it comes to examining the ways that human beings treat each other (and other beings), we may still have a ways to go, but we’ve come a long way from where we were as a species when this story was first told and written down!
No doubt chosen to be a contemplative reflection on David’s repentance in this week’s first reading, Psalm 32 seems to be a hymn which celebrates simultaneously the author’s deliverance from illness and forgiveness of sins. As noted above, in the ancient world there was a belief that there was a direct relationship between sinful behavior and one’s health; if you sin, God will make you get sick and die. Though we don’t traffic with that kind of thinking any more, both doctors and psychologists have affirmed that there can be a relationship between profound human guilt or remorse and one’s wellbeing. Though God and sin may not be the cause of our illnesses, our dwelling on guilt, shame, remorse, and the like, can have physical and emotional consequences on us. Though this psalm is riddled with dark imagery, it is a hymn which sings of the hope we find in careful self-examination and repentance.
The spiritual discipline of repentance is often neglected in contemporary Christian contexts. We tend to associate it with sack-cloth, ashes, and groveling. However, the act of repentance is, in its truest biblical sense, nothing more than taking a close and careful look at our lives to discern if there needs to be a change in our direction. It is important to, on a regular basis, look at our outer lives and see if the way we are living matches the core values of our inner spiritual life. If they seem to be in sync, we know that all is well. But if there is dissonance between our inner spiritual core and the way we are living outwardly, we know that we need to change direction. If we don’t change direction, we can become like the psalmist who wrote, “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away… my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer” (The Book of Common Prayer translation). A refusal to reorient ourselves, though we know we are on the wrong path, can be devastating to us — spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
In process-relational theology we often speak of God’s lure toward creativity and best possible outcomes. The psalmist speaks of God’s lure toward repentance and reorienting one’s life in poetic terms by putting words in God’s mouth: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you…” (NRSV) or “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye…” (BCP). Having a secure relationship with God will help us — individually and collectively — to be able to discern “the way [we] should go” in our daily living. In our ongoing work of self-examination, we all find that at times what we are expressing and doing outwardly in our lives doesn’t align with our inner core and spiritual values. This is normal, of course, because we are human beings; we occasionally make mistakes, lose track of our trajectory, and act irrationally rather than mindfully.
But even when we are the most lost, we can be confident that God and God’s lure are with us, inviting us into divine creativity and towards better possible outcomes. As we continue to grow and mature spiritually, we know that we can trust that “small still voice” to lead us and guide us in the most loving ways imaginable. The process of reorienting ourselves can seem, at times, to be too big of a task for us to accomplish it. It’s important, of course, to remember that we needn’t reorient ourselves to arrive at our intended destination all at once. Reorientation is altering the direction of our journey; it’s a process that is to be taken one step at a time.
If this passage from Galatians is to be used on a Sunday morning (whether it is the focus of the sermon or not), it would be better to lengthen the passage by beginning at 2:1 (or at least 2:11) in order to convey the broader context of Paul’s remarks. Standing alone, Galatians 2:15-21 provides some popular sound-bytes of St. Paul for inclusion in the lectionary: “justified by faith” and “I have been crucified with Christ…” However, this one paragraph is so dependent on what precedes it for better understanding, and the average church member won’t know what precedes this passage in order to frame it for themselves. The remarks which follow here are from a presumed inclusion of an extended reading of this text, beginning at 2:1.
Paul is continuing to share with the Galatians a bit of his spiritual (and geographic) journey, which began in the passage from last week’s lectionary (1:11-24). Here in chapter 2, Paul tells of his trip to Jerusalem where he essentially gives a mission report to the recognized elders in the Jesus movement, sharing with them how he has received a revelation and call to share the message of Jesus with Gentiles. These recognized elders (all Jewish) agree to authorize him to continue to carry on his mission work among the Gentiles, provided that he “remember the poor.” Given the overarching context of the message Paul is trying to convey to the Galatians (the controversy of circumcision of Gentile believers), this is a major point. It shows that the elders of the Jewish community most closely linked to the Jesus movement (and to Jesus himself) are more concerned about the needs of the poor than they are about strict rituals and custmary observances (such as circumcision).
Next, Paul describes a scene from when Cephas (Peter) visited him at the Church in Antioch. When Cephas and Paul were alone with the Gentile believers, they all shared in fellowship together; but when there were other Jews among them, Cephas only sat at table with other Jews. Paul shares how he “called him out” on his behavior, as well as on his double-standard. Since Cephas was among those who authorized Paul’s work among the Gentiles in Jerusalem, and was among those who agreed that circumcision (and other Jewish observances) were not required for Gentile followers of Jesus, for him to behave contrary to what he helped authorize Paul to do was hypocrisy at best. Beyond the issue of consistency, though, was the issue of hospitality. For Cephas to refuse to sit and eat with Gentiles when there were Jews around was to render the Gentiles into a second-class citizenship. This question of whose company makes for appropriate table-fellowship is also relevant to this week’s Gospel reading from Luke!
In both of these vignettes which Paul shares with the Galatians we find a common thread of intentional relational living. To be more mindful of the poor than of strict religious customs is to be intentional in prioritizing where one’s major focus is; it points to where one’s true spirituality lies. To be open and hospitable and affirming of all people — regardless of their cultural and/or religious upbringing — is to be intentional in the way we put our spirituality into practice; it gives others the message that our outward behavior is consistent with our inner spiritual values.
All of this is the backdrop onto which Paul weaves his famous and well-beloved lines about being “justified by faith” and “crucified with Christ.” Paul doesn’t want either the Jews or the Gentiles to be dismissive of who they are for the sake of their spiritual and communal identity; rather, he wanted everyone — whether Jew or Gentile — to be mindful of the reality that we are all in relationship with one another, and to be intentional in affirming our relational interconnectedness. To paraphrase one of Paul’s famous lines here (verse 2:16) into the language of process-relational theology, it might look like this: We know that we are not made right with God and each other by the deeds we do or the obligations we meet, but that we are made right with God and each other through our ongoing mindfulness of our interbeing. This can also inform a renewed and fresh understanding of the other famous part of this passage where Paul proclaims “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live…” The “I” that is crucified is the “I” of the selfish ego; and the “Christ who lives in me” is intentional relational living.
Another way of coming toward this conclusion is to approach it through seeking a common context. In this case, the common context for the Jews and Gentiles in the conversation is their connection to the Jesus movement (or the Church) and the fact that they identify themselves as being “in Christ.” Paul was offering a paradigm which is very familiar to process-relational thinking: the value of diversity in the experience of unity. The rich diversity of the ancient world in which Paul lived provided for a great deal of cross-cultural sharing. But if, in that great diversity, there were people who found a common experience or context — in this case, Jesus and the Jesus movement — the diversity which comprised that unity was bound to make it all the richer and more to be valued. The same can be said for the Body of Christ in the twenty-first century; that which brings together so many diverse expressions of the human experience is something to celebrate, not avoid!
As already mentioned above, part of what makes this story so significant is the way that table fellowship was played out in the ancient world. To be “at table” with people was to be connected to them on several levels. One of the radical assertions of the Jesus movement was that socio-economic and other barriers were checked at the door when coming together for meals, fellowship, prayer, and worship. This story about Jesus being “at table” with a pharisee named Simon is just as much a story about both Simon and Jesus being “at table” with the woman who was bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears.
There are any number of hermeneutical angles which can address the question of how (and why) this woman who, in Simon’s eyes, was of a questionable character, wound up at a dinner party with a pharisee and his honored guest. One way is to wonder whether Simon was setting Jesus up; had Simon “planted” her there as a test? Putting someone of a questionable character in Jesus’ proximity would test whether he was truly discerning in his assessment of the human condition. But another approach would be to wonder whether Simon was himself someone who was in regular relationship with this woman; and he was wondering whether Jesus would “connect the dots” and find out that he, too, was of a questionable nature.
Either way, the story is about one’s ability to do the soul-searching task of self-examination. In the case of the woman, she is portrayed as being quite self-aware; she knows her brokenness only too well. She seems to know that the lack of mindfulness she had been applying to the living of her life has had a dreadful impact on her life (and, presumably, on other peoples’ lives as well). In stark contrast, Simon the pharisee is portrayed as someone who is clueless to how his lack of mindful living has led to his state of brokenness in his relationships. Jesus not only exposes how his lack of mindfulness has led to unfair conclusions about the woman in his own home, but Jesus also makes it clear that he has been a host in name only; he hasn’t performed any of the obligatory customs of hospitality which were the norm for their context.
The gospel narrative is full of Jesus’ call to mindful and intentional living, especially in terms of how intentional living is played out in relationships between people. Jesus repeatedly invites all people to leave behind those things which we are tempted to think divide us, and to embrace those things which unite us in our common human experience. Jesus’ radical notions come to a fevered pitch in this story, as he takes the dining table — formerly a place where divisions were most stark and pronounced along the lines of class, sex, station, ethnicity, and religion — and turns it into a radical gathering place where we all are welcome, regardless of… fill-in-the-blank.
Jesus took two further steps in the way this story is told. First, he proclaims that the woman’s sins are forgiven: “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” To be clear, Jesus didn’t say that he was the one who was forgiving them (though others at the table thought that what he was doing). Rather, he was conveying to the woman that her mindful attention to her interrelatedness was putting her on the path toward making all things right between herself, God, and others. Reflecting on a similar trajectory found in this week’s reading from Galatians, we could paraphrase Jesus’ pronouncement in process-relational language: “Your relationships are being healed… Your intentional relational way of being has reconciled you to God and humanity; go and continue to make peace in the world.”
The second step which Jesus took beyond the radical concept of a table fellowship of full equality is found in the final verses of this week’s passages. As Jesus goes throughout the cities and villages sharing the good news, along with the twelve men who always accompanied him, Jesus had several women who were working with him in his mission and helping him accomplish his ministry. Despite the fact that in his time and context the “proper” place for women was to remain at home, Jesus welcomed the ministering presence of people of both sexes. Though the radical inclusion of women which was exercised in the early years of the Jesus movement eventually fizzled out for many centuries, we have the biblical witness which shows us that Jesus valued the work and resourceful support of all people in spreading the good news about the realm of God.
The use of the table as a means for breaking down barriers was central to Jesus and the first few decades of the Jesus movement. It’s no small mistake that the table is also the central iconic object around which we gather for worship each week; whether or not Communion is part of the celebration each week, the table from which it is served is a visible presence in the gathered community of faith. It’s ironic that as the Jesus movement evolved into what we now know as the Church, the gatherings around the table have been gatherings which have historically been gatherings which point as much to what divides as to what unites us. Only in the last few decades have we really begun to see intentional work within the Church to make those gatherings inclusive of a greater diversity, reflecting the richness and the depth of the human experience. This passage from the Gospel of Luke — a narrative of Jesus bringing the margins of society into the center of the Realm of God — reminds us to continue the work of radical table fellowship, both within the Church and beyond it.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology into parish ministry through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and showing family & friends around the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY.