A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 2, 2015.
The story of David and Bathsheba is not a love story. In spite of Darryl Zanuck and Cecil B DeMille it’s a story of moral values in conflict with human passions, It’s about biological urges, not love. I said last week that marriage is an evolving institution. The Bible tells us of wives being purchased, of multiple wives, of wives and concubines. Love is an occasional aspect of Biblical marriage but not primary, not necessarily expected. And nowhere do we find the language beloved of conservatives that marriage consists of one man and one woman.
In all the long story of David, forty-some chapters in First and Second Samuel and the First Book of Kings love is mentioned maybe a dozen times but never with David as the subject. David, so far as the Bible tells us, never loved anyone. Jonathan loved David, and Saul’s daughter Michal loved David, and Judah and Israel loved David, but we are never told David loved anyone. He didn’t even know Bathsheba’s name until the day he saw her and wanted her. He wanted her and as king, he got her, but it was not about love.
We talked about that story last week and how lust led to murder, but don’t get distracted by the love angle or even the sex angle. Yes, this is a story of moral failure but I think we miss the point if we put the focus on the adultery. That may be more interesting, it may make a better movie or headline, but I think the emphasis is on property – property and robbery – and we don’t see it because adultery is more interesting. But we have to think ourselves back three thousand years to a day when women were property first of all and love was an occasional bonus.
What we heard today is the prophet Nathan’s indictment of David and it is put in terms of property. Nathan indicts David for robbery, not adultery. David had done his best to cover his tracks but a king can’t hide. A king is a public figure surrounded by courtiers and word gets out. Word got out and Nathan knew he had a job to do: because someone needed to call David to account and because no one, not even the king, maybe especially the king, can flout the law of God. Someone needs to call the sinner to account. Someone needs to call the sinner to account no matter how much power or money they have. But it isn’t easy to speak truth to power. It’s not easy to get past the third assistant secretary.
It’s also dangerous to speak truth to power. Power insulates. We have separation of church and state not because the church has no role in the state but because it does and can only fill that role effectively if it is separate and unentangled and free to call the state to account in a way an established church can’t do. There were priests in Israel but they were paid to serve the state not to criticize it. Nathan the prophet was free with nothing to lose but his life. David had dealt with Uriah and he could deal with Nathan if he had to.
So Nathan was careful. He made no direct charge; he simply told David the story we heard in the first reading this morning, a story about a poor man with only one lamb and a rich man with many flocks and herds.
But when the rich man had a guest to provide for he took the poor man’s lamb and served it to his guest. Now that’s robbery. Nathan’s story has nothing to do with love or lust or adultery, just plain, old-fashioned robbery. The rich man was a thief. And David was irate that anyone should be so immoral: “a man like that should die” said David. And Nathan simply held up the mirror for David to see himself. “You are the man.” And that’s the point at which we see who David is and why Israel loved him. Whether he loved them, we are never told, but they loved him; the people loved him and a thousand years later they were still looking for a king like David. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, it was David they were looking for. “Hosanna,” they called; “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Democrats await the second coming of Roosevelt and Republicans are looking for Reagan redivivus, but the Jewish people wanted David for all his sins. They loved him. And I think we see in this story why they loved him. Yes, he had his faults, but he was great enough to admit his faults and to say, “I have sinned.” The phrase politicians like to use today is, “Mistakes were made.” Imagine David saying that to Nathan: “Mistakes were made.” No. “I have sinned.” What he doesn’t say is, “I have committed adultery” or “I have stolen.” But in Nathan’s parable, it’s robbery that’s described and that’s appropriate because what David did was to steal and the worst part of it is that he stole from the poor man and he stole the poor man’s prized possession. He stole from the poor man; and once we see that we are right in the middle of one of the central themes of the Bible, perhaps the central theme: wealth and poverty and responsibility. What appalls Nathan is that David, to whom God has given so much, would not simply steal, but would steal from the poor. It appalls David, too, when Nathan gets his attention. He knows what he’s done. He knows. I wonder whether anyone has ever done a study of poverty through the ages and attitudes toward it. I haven’t done a study myself, but I wonder whether any document, any group of people, any tradition pays as much attention to the poor as the Bible, the book of the people God calls. It’s there right from the beginning, from the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. You shall not steal and you shall not covet – two of the ten commandments have to do with property. That could be just protecting the rich. But it isn’t. Read on in the law and find: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:9) That’s in Leviticus. In Deuteronomy we find: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand . . . Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:7) This is basic to the identity of God’s people. The Egyptians built pyramids and Roman emperors built monuments, But God’s people were to care for the poor. The prophets never tired of berating the rich for the way they exploited the poor. Now, that’s the Old Testament but the same theme is even more dominant in the Gospels and epistles. “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus and he told the parable of Dives and Lazarus where Dives ends up in hellfire simply for being rich and Lazarus winds up in heaven simply for being poor. At the Last Judgment, Jesus said, you will be judged, and you will be judged not on whether you went to church but whether you fed the hungry and clothed the naked. St. Paul reminds us of what he calls “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” But that’s not Wall Street wealth, it’s spiritual. And Christians, am I right?, ought to be seeking spiritual wealth most of all. But that spiritual wealth comes never comes without material giving: giving generously to the poor, giving generously to those in need. So how does it come about that the world’s most professedly Christian country can stand to see almost a third of its children growing up in poverty? Why is it that we rank 36th out of 41 so-called developed countries in UNICEF’s measurement, just slightly ahead of Mexico and Greece but trailing Ireland, Italy, and Bulgaria! How is it that we have candidates for the presidency suggesting we need to cut back on health care and education and social security? How is it that we so arrange our national life that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and people claiming to be Christians vote for those who work hardest for the rich and show no concern for the poor? Imagine, if you can, a prophet going in to one of the various candidates for President or perhaps we could imagine the prophet going to the executive office of Walmart or Amazon or Walgreens or Apple and saying, “There was a certain poor man who worked two jobs to support his family, to rent a small apartment, and to clothe his children, and there was a certain rich man who owned large homes in Tahoe and Hawaii and Beverly Hills but the state enacted a new minimum wage law to help the poor man pay his bills and the rich man said to himself, I cannot pay this new minimum wage and still buy more cars and houses so I will have to reduce the hours my employees work.” David would be outraged. We should be outraged. But that’s much more specific, much less subtle, that the original Nathan and this modern Nathan would never get beyond the third assistant secretary anyway. Today’s rich men and women live in gated communities where prophets are not allowed. They say that a minimum wage worker in California would have to work 92 hours to be able to afford a one-room apartment. And yet, one leading candidate for the presidency recently suggested that Americans need to work longer hours. Americans work longer hours already than those of most other developed economies – longer than the Japanese or the Germans or the French. That same candidate tells us we have to cut back on Medicare and Social Security but not tax the rich. What’s wrong with this country that we so resist the very idea of using government to help each other and especially to help the poor, the very thing the Bible commands us to do? We need another Nathan with a parable for today’s rich. We need to update the story of Dives and Lazarus. We need Bible-believing Christians who will read their Bibles and act on what the Bible tells them. And let me take one minute to broaden the scope of the argument beyond this country to the larger world where immigrants from Central America terrify Donald Trump and desperate thousands drown in the Mediterranean while the rich countries of the world spend billions on armies and weapons to defend our shores and very little on the assistance that would make those desperate millions happy to stay at home. Poverty, poverty, wealth and poverty. It’s never enough to say God is a God of love and God loves me. God does love you, but God calls you and me to act: to see the needs of the poor and to say, “I have sinned” and to become, as Jesus was, love incarnate and to show that love to the poor. Love and marriage come along with the horseless carriage – far in the future – and in many ways, we’re not there yet. David and Bathsheba came along at a time when marriage was still mostly about passion and property and biological urges, not about love. There were glimpses, of course. Jacob served for seven years to gain Rachel and we are told that those seven years “seemed to him but a few days” because of the love he had for her. And that was long before the time of David. Closer to the time of David, we read the story of Hannah and Elkanah and how Hannah agonized over the fact that she was childless but Elkanah said, “Why are you sad; am I not more to you than ten sons?” (I Sam. 1:8) We do see love trumping biology from time to time, but not in the story of David and Bathsheba.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.