Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14), 12 August 2018

August 12, 2018 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 [Psalm 130] [Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2] John 6:35, 41-51

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Last week, we heard Nathan convict David of sin with a parable. However, the palace intrigue is not over. To make a long story short, David’s son Absalom attempts to take the throne from David. Absalom is beloved by David and the people of Israel in part because he is so beautiful; the text mentions that Absalom has particularly beautiful hair. Once Absalom raises an army, David cannot defend Jerusalem properly, so he retreats with his armies across the Jordan. Eventually, Absalom and his armies catch up with them, and the fighting begins. Our text for today picks up with David giving instructions to his general Joab and the commanders Abishai and Ittai in front of everyone telling them to ‘deal gently’ with Absalom. The battle is fierce, and many men die.

On the battlefield, Absalom meets David’s people and at that moment manages to get stuck in the branches of an oak tree as he rides under. (Traditionally, interpreters have read this passage to mean that his beautiful hair, mentioned back in chapter 14, tangles in the branches.) Absalom’s mule keeps going, and he hangs from the tree by his hair. Can hair actually hold up the weight of a grown man? Indeed, it can. Today, entire circus acts (usually by women) revolve around performers hanging by only their hair.  No doubt, it was painful for Absalom, but he was stuck fast.

We skip ahead a few verses to save reading the parts where Joab argues with a soldier about killing Absalom. In these verses, the soldier interprets David’s command to deal gently as a command not to kill Absalom. Joab, David’s most trusted adviser, interprets his command in another way. In verse 15, Joab and ten of his men kill Absalom while he hangs in the tree. Joab puts three spears through Absalom’s heart, and then Joab’s soldiers finish the job. This is the gentle/merciful death that David commanded.  

The story picks up again in verse 31 when a Cushite (someone from Northern Africa who is not Egyptian) sent by Joab brings news of Absalom’s death. When the Cushite arrives, he tells David that the war has gone his way, and he has won. David’s next question is for news of his son. David immediately begins to mourn his son. Even after all of this, David wishes aloud that it had been him and not Absalom that had died.

Notice that David did not do to the men who killed Absalom what he did to the man who killed Saul. If David had sincerely wished Absalom’s fate had befallen him instead, he could have abdicated the throne to his son. But, the deed was done in such a way as to keep David’s hands clean. Now, he can mourn his son and reunify his kingdom. David’s grief is real, but so is his relief.

Preaching this text is no easy task, it is the story of men who should care about each other fighting and killing one another for power and control. Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar. In the college class that I teach, my students often wonder why God would not only allow such a thing but would choose such despicable people. I think it is a good question. So are the corollary questions like why isn’t the Bible full of perfect examples of virtuous people and why should we believe any of this since so many of God’s people are such terrible people? I think that the last question is a good place to start. The people in the Bible are just that: people. David is far from a saint; it might be fair to say he is a pretty terrible person, I wouldn’t put up much of an argument. I am far from a saint. I have done and said things that I am not proud of and would take back if I could (not rape or murder, like David, just to be clear!). And yet, God still persistently, doggedly, unfailingly shows up in my life, moment by moment, offering me the best possible, luring me to be the best I can be.

The truth of our world is that God has to work with human beings, including all of our faults and mess. God calls David to good, and in each moment, God calls David to better. David chose poorly. In each of our moments, God calls us to the good and to choose the better. Why would we expect the Bible, a story of God’s relationship with humanity to have people any different from how people actually are? God does not get to deal with only the perfect segments of humanity. This is the world as it is, full of people as we are for better or worse. If the Bible were full of only virtuous people, it would not be a record of God’s relationship with actual people. Instead, it would be a fairy-tale. As it stands, God called a human being, David, to do a big task and David messed up a whole lot. Yet, God did not abandon David and God will not abandon me. God will not abandon you, dear preacher and God will not abandon the people who have come to hear the Good News from you. God plays the long game. God’s game is so long in fact, that human minds cannot imagine the patience God will employ with us.

After this passage, David sins and sins again. God rebukes David again. David is finite, and God is everlasting. God’s plans for Israel continue long past Saul and on past David. God finds a bright spot, but no paragon of virtue, in Solomon. In spite of this, God’s long game continues. It continues in us. The Good News of this passage is not about forgiveness as such, but is about God’s persistence. Over and over again, God offers David the opportunity to choose the good, and by doing so open up a future of contributing more and more good to his own life and the world. Instead, David chooses poorly. In so doing, he closes off opportunities for the good so that tragedy and ruin surround him in his life. The lesson for us is that as God does not abandon David, God will not abandon us.  Our job is to choose wisely.

John 6:35, 41-51

In this section of John, Jesus is teaching in the area of the Sea of Galilee. He has crossed back and forth over the course of the last few chapters, but this day, he is in the city of Capernaum on the northern shore. In this passage, Jesus is talking with a group of people (the NRSV uses the word crowd) some of whom have just recently benefitted from the miracles of the loaves and fishes. His discussion with the people draws a strong parallel between him, communion, and the Passover. These verses begin with Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life and that those who come to him and believe in him will benefit.

Then the text tells us, “the Jews began to complain.”  In the time of Jesus, in the Galilee, who was there except Jews?  Jesus himself was a Jew. (Although it was not unheard of for people of Greek, Roman, or African heritage to live in Israel, it would have been rare enough that the readers would have assumed all of the people in the crowd were Jews. This suggests to scholars that John’s gospel is directed to a group of people who no longer identify as Jewish.) The story tells us in other words, that everyone begins to complain. The complaint is pretty legitimate at first glance. They know this young man to be the son of Mary and Joseph, flesh and blood, just like a normal person. They watched him grow up, just like a normal kid. Now, he is running around saying that he is the bread that came down from heaven. This makes no logical sense. One cannot be bread from heaven and a normal human being.

Jesus answers the complainers in verse 43. The funny thing about Jesus’ answers is that it is a non-answer. The questioners ask, “How can you be both human and the bread that came down from heaven?” Jesus’ non-answer is, of course you do not believe, only those who follow God will believe and only they receive resurrection at the end times. This non-answer quotes Scripture from Isaiah 54:13. Jesus interprets Isaiah to mean that everyone who follows God will believe in Jesus. He goes on to say, in a confusing and oblique way that the only person to see the Father is him. Those who believe that Jesus knows the Father will have eternal life. He then makes one of the “I am” statements that appear with regularity in John. He says, “I am the bread of life.” He compares himself to the manna eaten by the Hebrews as the traversed the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Unlike the people who ate manna in the wilderness and eventually died, Jesus provides life eternal. Unlike manna in the wilderness meant only for the Hebrew people, Jesus provides the bread of life for the world.

Jesus’ non-answer really is an answer in some ways. The complainers are asking about whom he is. Jesus tells them. I really am the way to eternal life. He connects himself with the ancient stories of Passover, casting himself as a continuation and fulfillment of the good work God started in the desert. The imagery should not be lost on us. Manna kept the people alive for a while; Jesus will keep the people alive eternally. Manna was for only a select few; Jesus is for anyone who will believe. Passover is God’s promise of freedom from slavery and the good life in the Promised Land. Jesus is God’s promise of freedom from death and the good life eternally. Our response in both cases is to believe and eat. Believing in Jesus, eating of the bread life, results in a far greater reward.

Today is a good Sunday to talk about the importance of communion. In this discussion with the people, Jesus draws a continuity between himself and the history of the people and between himself and God. He says that those who eat the bread of life will participate in and benefit from that same continuity and more. When we come to communion, we participate in the salvation history that marks the freedom of the people of God from slavery. In communion, we participate in God’s continued saving grace in Jesus Christ. The word “participate, take part in, be a part of,’ indicates a reality. Process thinking is not interested in talking about the ‘substance’ of the bread and wine since substance talk falls to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Instead, we can talk in terms of coming, seeing, believing, hearing, learning, and eating. Participating in communion connects us to Christ and all those connected to him. Our choices, actions, and intentions are real. The world consists of our choices and actions and intentions. Christ has invited us to choose and act and intend as participation in his saving grace. When we participate in communion, we truly participate in him and the salvation he offers. In communion (to use some of the dense technical language from process theology), we co-constitute ourselves with Christ. That is, we choose to make Jesus Christ part of our very selves. Communion is not magic. But, it is magical. In coming, seeing, believing, hearing, learning, and eating we gain life eternal.

Nichole Torbitzky received a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, and Women and Religion.