Poverty, David, and Us

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.

Nathan reproaches King David

The reproach of Nathan and the penance of King David (Paris Psalter, folio 136v, 10th century).

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.

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