David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord.
Paul implores: I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Jesus warns: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
The doctrine of separation of church and state has led to two assumptions highly favored by secularists and liberals alike:
- That the antidote to ‘bad’ religion is ‘no’ religion.
- The practice of religion is a personal and private right that has no legitimate voice in the public marketplace of debate and ideas.
The reality is however that while religion may be intensely personal, it is never private. Faith and its expression is always a public affair.
Throughout the Biblical record, the lesson learned ad nauseum is that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. Stanislav Volf uses the terms weak and strong religion in an attempt to avoid the more pejorative connotations of good and bad.
Weak religion is narrow, sectarian religion. Despite the megaphone voice of its proponents, it’s insecure religion, that seeks to impose narrow sectarian interest through force of law upon the body politic. Weak religion must be countered by strong religion – that is, a religiously rooted public interest attitude that embraces pluralism and insists on being heard as one voice among others in the space of civic debate.
The catalyst for my revisiting some of these thoughts is the story recorded in the book of Samuel concerning David and Bathsheba. In last week’s portion in the David saga, we heard about David’s covert discovery of Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house. The sight of her excites David’s lust. He has her brought to him and then commits adultery with her.
Because the Biblical record hardly ever preserves the woman’s voice we don’t know if Bathsheba is a willing participant or not, so we don’t know whether the adultery is rape or consensual. The differentials of power here might give us a clue, however. Having taken and made Bathsheba pregnant, David then engineers her husband, one Uriah’s death, so that she can be totally his. Like men of power, David has a fixer. Joab, commander of the army is David’s chief fixer. While David orchestrates, Joab executes Uriah’s murder.
Today’s portion opens with the only recording of Bathsheba’s voice we have and it’s the clearest indication of her feelings about the situation she now finds herself in. We are told that when she learns of Uriah’s death, she cries out in loud and public lamentation. Her grief at the death of her husband is further aggravated when the child she bears David dies (is taken by the Lord as punishment). The only redeeming element in this sorry saga is that it seems David loves Bathsheba. He comforts her, and together they conceive another child, a son, Solomon, who will eventually succeed his father on the throne. We will get to learn more about Solomon in a couple of weeks.
The focus of the action in this section of the David saga concerns the arrival of Nathan the prophet God sends to speak truth to power. In ancient Israel, the only check on the king’s power was the office of the prophet. Nathan skillfully confronts the king by telling him a story designed to provoke David’s outrage at an injustice committed. Moved by Nathan’s contrivance, David condemns the man in Nathan’s story for his act of injustice, at which point Nathan proclaims: You are the man!
David, having condemned himself out his own mouth, Nathan then pronounces God’s verdict:
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”
David does not respond to Nathan with threats typical of a tyrant called to account; threats of retaliatory violence or banishment from future news briefings He simply utters five words of repentance: I have sinned against the Lord.
Like all men of power corrupted by their autocratic instincts, David has tried to erect a wall of separation between his private (secret) acts and the domain of public affairs. From this point onwards, the rest of David’s reign is the chronicle of his increasing failure to maintain a separation between personal and public affairs as his personal choices have consequences that spill over into the public sphere of his kingship.
God’s verdict: I will raise trouble against you from within your own house, is fulfilled. David’s daughter Tamar is raped by her brother Amnon, and his complicity in Amnon’s crime through his silence and refusal to punish Amnon provokes his first-born son, Absalom. Absalom bides his time and eventually murders Amnon to avenge his sister. There is now only sourness between father and son, king and heir. Absalom flees from his father’s wrath. A deal is eventually struck allowing Absalom to come home. But things are not healed between them and Absalom looks for the opportunity to overthrow his father, but more of that next week.
David is remembered as the greatest of Israel’s kings. It is from his line that the prophets proclaimed the Messiah would be born. Being of David’s lineage is for the New Testament writers a crucial confirmation of Jesus identity as the Lord’s anointed one.
David is an autocrat with feet of clay. A strong man with a vulnerable heart. An autocrat, but unlike others who will follow in the long sorry list of Israel’s kingly failures he never confuses the fact that he is king under God, not king instead of God. The Deuteronomist identifies David’s true greatness as lying not in his achievements and power but despite his all too human weakness, in his humility before God. It is with five simple words that David accepts Nathan’s declaration of God’s verdict upon his actions.
Biblically rooted Christianity does not recognize a separation between private faith and public responsibilities. Like David, we come to grief when we try to separate the two. In our case, the attempt to keep faith a private affair renders us completely ineffectual as agents for God’s kingdom in this world. For private belief has public consequences. Even if we hide our faith under a bushel and never proclaim it in the market square – this is still a public action against which we will be judged by the promises of our baptismal covenant.
As the Christian Right understands only too well the public expression of faith is a political action. When out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we seek refuge in the illusion of faith practiced privately, we fail to proclaim the fundamental connection between what we believe and how we act. This failure has catastrophic consequences in the business of the public square.
Nonaction is nevertheless a political choice made and a negative action taken. The public nature of the Christian faith requires from us the courage to expose and actively resist what Paul identifies as the dark forces of this world – forces of systemic violence and injustice. Our failure to do so will have consequences we may neither desire, nor eventually be insulated from.
The Apostle Paul issues the following plea:
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
In John’s gospel Jesus warns the crowds clamoring for another miracle feeding:
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
What is the food that endures for eternal life? It’s not a ticket into heaven; it is not the pie in the sky when we die which is a grotesque distortion of Christian hope. No, the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man gives us is:
To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
You don’t have to look too hard to contemplate what this looks like in today’s world, where individuals benefiting from a legal blindness to corporate enrichment at the public expense; where ordinary people languish, and the perpetration of injustice thrives barely concealed behind a barrage of outrageous falsehoods.
When the proponents of strong religion remain silent, might this not be the greatest falsehood of all?