Lectionary Commentary

July 26, 2009
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 12

Commentary by Rick Marshall

See also: [Year B Archive]


Psalm 145:10-18
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Reflecting on Preaching:

To treat the 2 Samuel and the John texts from a prophetic point of view is to invite strong reaction. A preacher should think twice before being too forceful about these texts. The preacher is usually preaching to the choir, so to speak, and preaching a prophetic and forceful sermon might be targeting the wrong audience. Maybe some of the suggestions that follow would be better used in venues other than worship, such as books, articles, web-sites, social criticism, etc. The dilemma for any preacher is how to balance the voice of the prophetic with the voice of the pastoral.

Discussing the Texts:

King David continues to this day to be lionized as a great man, God’s anointed one. After the tormented reign of Saul, we read that David was, in fact, God’s preferred man. The wind of God’s favor was blowing at his back. He was such a success that he has become a model of God’s choosing. Yet, those who continue to hold him up as an example of a man of God have not read the entire narrative. With today’s text from 2 Samuel, there should be no doubt about the fact of his failure and why he failed. It cannot be said strong enough that King David was a spectacular failure to his people and to God. This text is the tipping point beyond which we see David’s fall. It is the fall not only of David, but it is a negation of the model of King and empire and the power it uses. Leading up to this text, we see David having one success after another. He is a warrior, a fighter in whom the people of Israel have come to trust. He is fulfilling the ideal of trust in God. But then...

“It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.” The king had become so successful on the battlefield that he now seems to be a man of leisure while the war goes on. So begins the event that sets into motion his downward path. The events happen quickly; after all, it takes only a moment to betray someone, or to take a life. He inquires about the beautiful woman and finds out her name and that she is married to one of his soldiers, Uriah. She is clearly off limits to David. But David takes her anyway. The act seems so discrete and quiet. Shall the king resist his appetites? Oh, the privilege—the divine right—of Kings!

The text begins with these words: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle...” The statement lifts up the seemingly natural act of violence and war. “In the spring” makes it seem part of the natural cycle if seasons. It’s a simple logic: It’s spring, therefore kings make war. The season of new life is ironically the season of taking life. This is a clue to how to interpret the text of royal betrayal and murder. The first words reveal very simply the underlying assumption of what it means to be King: war, violence, the taking of human lives. No wonder the murder of Uriah was so easily rationalized by King David. The story raises deep moral problems with the very idea of “king.”

The question of why David takes Bathsheba is simple. He was the king, therefore he could and he did. When he learns that she has become pregnant, it is a seemingly small problem for the king. To cover the growing evidence of his indiscretion, David calls husband Uriah from the battlefield, expecting that Uriah will go and lay with his own wife and therefore conceal the fact that David made her pregnant. But Uriah is a man of honor, clearly more honorable than the king, and sticks close to his king and comrades out of loyalty. David again encourages him to go home for a rest. But he stays with the king and his comrades out of duty and honor.

David’s little cover-up didn’t work. What’s plan “B”? Surely the simple elimination of a lowly soldier would be sufficient, and then the whole tawdry affair will go away. Taking another man’s life has been part of his life as the beloved Lion King, God’s Warrior and Israel’s Defender. Without it being spelled out for us in the story, we can reconstruct the simple rationale that led David to murder a loyal, innocent man. So he sends a message to Joab, his trusted general, who is on the battlefront. “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” Shockingly, David gives the message to Uriah who unknowingly hand-delivers his own death sentence. David has Uriah killed. The writer spares few details: David is shown in the harshest light to be arrogant, deceitful, dishonest, corrupt, a murderer. In short, he is a man who thinks he is above the law. There are no words to blunt the sharpness of this critique of David. We were suckered, too, at the beginning, into believing that David would be the true Messiah; after all, he was God’s anointed.

This downward spiral (and it continues on in the narrative) is about the man of God’s choosing, who was lifted from obscurity out of Jesse’s family by the prophet Samuel and anointed king of Israel. What began as a promising hope turned into sad failure. But we should have known better. Some, even today, can’t see King David in such a negative light. How do the true believers rationalize David’s violence and murder? We should know better.

We are reminded of God’s warning earlier in the narrative. God reacts (1 Samuel 8:10-18) in response to Israel’s demand for a king. These words come from God through the prophet Samuel: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen.” The text goes on at length that the king will take, take, take. Taking is what kings do. He will take your sons for his wars, your daughters, your land, your money. This is the definition of the king: He is the one who takes. Reading this warning should be sobering to the people who demand a king, but they insist they want one anyway.

David did what kings do: he takes, takes, takes. This is the defining verb, the central moral definition of kings (and queens and many other leaders). First and Second Samuel come as a cautionary tale, a warning against organizing society around a king who embodies the kind of power to take, to impose, to coerce. Tragically, we are on familiar territory; history is littered with the failings of empires and the violence that is “required” to sustain them. Sadly, it will continue. The rest of David’s story is mostly tragedy, hopes unfulfilled, despair, death. David fell short, but surely, God will anoint another. The besotted nadir of King Solomon’s reign leads to a litany of failed kings; he is the burst of bright light in the sky, sparks raining down and fading into darkness. What now? And so the people wait. That’s what people do, they wait, wait, wait.

Surely, God will send someone who will succeed where David failed. The awaited one will come from the lineage of David, another king, another anointed one, another messiah.

The gospel story begins with this lack of resolution. Who can lead the people to peace and well-being? Jesus comes on the scene with much talk of his connection to David. He is of the family of David; he has the pedigree, the credentials. Yet again, what begins with promise soon leads to failure: Jesus is eventually executed. So he is therefore not the messiah. But there was strong hope among his followers that Jesus would be God’s anointed one.

As a result of Jesus providing food for five thousand people, and many other acts of healing, the people want to make him king, by force if necessary. So he goes away before they could seize him. Seen in the light of the sad and troubled history with kings, we wonder why they want to make Jesus king? Jesus refused them. The crowds gathered because “they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” But why would this qualify him to be king? Maybe the people thought that Jesus’ healing powers would qualify him as a different kind of king.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand evokes the question: what kind of power is this? This is often the question that comes to the people and to the disciples who have witnessed his power. It should be our question, too. But interpreting this text as a miracle story keeps us from thinking about the nature of the power that was displayed by Jesus. There is a mindset, familiar to many, that is captured by this popular saying: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But this mindset misses the opportunity for deeper study.

Treating any of these stories as miracles leads to misinterpreting the text as a story where God, through Jesus, acts outside the rules of nature and imposes what would otherwise be impossible. A superficial reading of the story misses the metaphorical depth of even asking the question, what kind of power is this? The action is seen as coming from “above” when in fact Jesus tells us it comes from “within.” If the action comes from above, then we cannot get beyond it being a miracle. But if the power comes from within, then we can begin to talk about the mystery of life and how death can be transformed into new life in the present moment.

Reading the text from Ephesians, it is obvious that the nascent church understood that Jesus represented a different kind of power. It was power through the Spirit. It is a power that not only Jesus had; it is a power within all of us. The concluding benediction says “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

With the identification of Jesus as Messiah, there is a clear understanding that the power Jesus embodied is a power very different from other kings, even King David, and that this is a power that works “within” us. Here is the difference between the kind of power King David (or any other king) has and the kind of power King Jesus has: it is not a power that takes and takes, but a power that gives and gives. One kind of power requires violence and death; the other kind of power evokes life. This is the primary difference between any other king and King Jesus.

The kingdom of God, as described in the Christian scriptures, is an alternative to any other kingdom of power. The Kingdom of God is the peaceable kingdom of grace, mercy, compassion, transformation, and life. When offered so simply, who would choose death? “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live....” (Deut. 30:19) Why do we continue do make the wrong choice?  Why do we continue to use the power of coercion and violence? The answer lies at the core of the mystery of the human heart. Even God learned in the Noah story that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21). Remember, it was God in the Noah story who redefined divine power from coercion to persuasion. “I will never again destroy...” Life is divinely affirmed.

Process Theology and the Texts:

With this set of texts, we inevitably run into the issue of power, and we shouldn’t be surprised. The remembrance of the story of King David was very much on the minds of those who witnessed Jesus. In him they perceived a different kind of king, one who will heal and feed, one who will bring peace and well-being. (See Ezekiel 34 for more on what it means to be a good shepherd of the people.) No wonder they wanted to seize him. But seizing is what kings do. They were willing to coerce him to become king. No wonder Jesus refused: he repudiates that kind of power.

The idea of power “within” and a power that “gives” instead of “taking” is a natural fit with a process view of divine power. In Jesus’ actions of healing and feeding, and in the things he says, he blurs the line between the human realm and the divine realm. Instead of thinking literally of God as “above,” Jesus has us look inward. It is not simply human power, but it is the power of God manifest in and through our own lives where we see the nature of divine power. We are co-creators with God. It has always been a human choice between using coercive power or persuasive power. The distinction between these two forms of power is a central idea in process theology.  

Note: When comparing David and Jesus, the preacher must be clear that the issue is about forms of power practiced by two different people. It is not a comparison between Judaism and Christianity, with the implication that David (Judaism) got it wrong, and Jesus (Christianity) finally got it right.

Preaching the Texts:

First the pastoral approach, then the prophetic.

A preacher could approach the King David and Bathsheba story as an example of sin and repentance. After all, that is the message that both John the Baptist and Jesus preached. The story is a cautionary tale and David is seen in human terms, that is, flawed. This is David’s darkest hour. He sinned against God, against Bathsheba, against Uriah, and his people. The contrast between David and Jesus could focus on how they treat people. David used them; Jesus had compassion on them. As human beings, the examples of David and of Jesus, placed side-by-side, we see which is the better way to be human and the better way to treat others. Jesus then becomes an example of what he preached: to love God and to love neighbor, which is the root ethical principle. In other words, to treat the other with respect is the basic requirement of human behavior. Emphasis could be placed on Jesus as a model of giving and then on David as a model for taking. David gained fame through his war-time exploits shedding other people’s blood; Jesus gained recognition through healing, his blood becoming a symbol of transformation.

The preacher could reflect on what it means to be an authentic human being, using Jesus as a model. Then there could be a discussion of community. When Jesus asked the people to be seated, they became a congregation, receiving the bread, blessed by Jesus’ hands. How did the so called “miracle” happen? Was it because of what Jesus brought to the moment, or what the congregation brought to the moment? It was probably both. What is a worshiping congregation but those who gather around this person and practice what it means to be a community and an authentic person-in-community?

Or a preacher could focus on the Psalm and point to God’s power of Creation. It is a poetic rendering of God’s goodness and power. But, again, Divine power would have to be addressed. By staying within the boundaries of the poem, a sermon could be a vehicle of praise and hope.

As noted above, when one takes the prophetic approach, care must be taken that the target audience (your particular congregation) is an appropriate hearing for the prophetic treatment of these texts.

The problem of leadership and power are recurrent themes in the Bible. The question about leadership remains relevant: Is it possible for any empire to provide peace and well-being for all? Another way of asking the question: Is it possible that a religious or political leader can “give” rather than “take”?

The recent death of Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense and one of the architects of the Vietnam war, brought me back to that era. At that time, McNamara was an intelligent man who executed deadly policies of war on behalf of our country. The draft was in place, young men of my age were being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Many of them never came home. President Nixon was unpopular. The Viet Nam war was a tragedy. I was of draft age during that time and joined the Air Force and served for 7 years. Even as a teenager, I knew the war was wrong and many asked the same questions: What kind of political and religious leadership got the USA into the war, how was it justified, and what helped prolong it? Approximately 58,000 US soldiers died in that war. Who bears responsibility for those deaths and the incalculable harm to the people of Viet Nam? We are reminded of the passage from 1 Samuel mentioned above. The leaders of this country took and took and took.

Now we look at the war in Iraq and ask the same questions: What kind of political and religious leadership got the USA into the war, how was it justified, and what helped prolong it? More than 4,000 US soldiers have died in the war and tens of thousands have been wounded. Who bears responsibility for those deaths and for the incalculable harm done to the people of Iraq? We are reminded of the passage from 1 Samuel mentioned above. Once again, the leaders of this country took, took, and took. This has clearly been a war of choice. Vice President Dick Cheney (and others) is certainly one who has primary responsibility for pushing for this war and continuing to justify it. Many books have already been written, giving an account of the decisions that have led us into this ethical ditch. Who is accountable for such carnage?

Now, under the current administration of President Obama, similar policies are in place in the war in Afghanistan. Bomb-laden drones move across the sky on the border with Pakistan, dropping deadly accurate bombs on enemies, and the collateral damage is only superficially known by us. We know that these acts of war have killed children, women, old men, demolished families and villages. The same question persists: What kind of political and religious leadership got the USA into this war, how was it justified, and what helped prolong it?

What do these deadly policies reflect about our country? Who is complicit? What social structures have been built, and with whose money, to extend such destructive power to the far corners of the world? A whole nation will be judged by its actions.

Evil can be defined as an act that brings unnecessary harm, suffering, or destruction. This raises an even shaper question: If a person does evil acts, is that person evil? Hitler is easily categorized as evil. But is the word reserved only for him? If only for him, then what meaning could there be in the word?

I recommend the movie The Fog of War, in which McNarmara reflects on the Viet Nam war and concludes that it was a mistake. He admitted that the leaders were wrong about the war, that they knew it at the time and yet kept it going. Waging war in Viet Nam was evil. Does that make Presidents Johnson and Nixon and their policies evil? President Bush lied about the war in Iraq and pursued deathly policies. Does that make him evil? Does promoting the policies of violence used by Vice President Dick Cheney make him an evil person? Who will bear responsibility for the deadly policies of the government of the USA? Do those policies bring healing, safety, peace and well-being? Obviously, they are opposed to the human values of life and well-being.

These questions, posed against the background of the kingdom of God which Jesus represented, allow for self-reflection and prayer. Without Messiah Jesus’ vision of the world, we would not see evil as clearly as we do in the light of his teaching, life, death and resurrection. Messiah Jesus offers an alternative to what we think is the only way of doing business in the world. These are questions of power and how leaders embody power. What kind of power promotes life and well-being, and what kind of power promotes violence and death?  

Another question that we are faced with at the current moment is this: Is it possible for the concentration of capital and wealth into a few hands to promote life and the common good? It seems that the answer is a sad negative. We are faced with the problem of leadership even now. What kind of leader will bring peace and well-being for all?

We watch Barack Obama ascend the throne (the Oval Office) and assume the powers of the greatest empire ever created by human hands. He steps into a raging vortex of power, wealth, and special interests. What kind of person can make healthy policies in such an environment? His political slogan “Yes We Can” fades into the echo chamber of power politics. Can any good come from this? A series of leaders and their administrations have led this country into a ditch. In these larger questions, there is very little difference between political parties. They all have squandered the wealth and wisdom of this country that had, and still has, such promise. Another question: Is it possible for any human being to lead an empire without destroying it? This question is still held in doubt, as it has been throughout the era of the collection of writings that we know as the Bible.

To take an example closer at hand (for me), the State of California is one of the largest economies in the world, and it is on the brink of being a failed state. What has brought us to this point? Who gains and who loses? Who is getting hurt? The weakest and the most vulnerable. The politics of self-interest and special interest hold the budgetary ax over the heads of the weakest. Who is held responsible for this rapacious economic and political gamesmanship?

Again, the texts call for a prophetic voice. What preacher is up to the task? Where will the religious leadership come from that will speak truth inside this empire? What are the risks and responsibilities of preachers across this land who ascend into pulpits Sunday after Sunday? Will they bless the powers that be, or challenge them using the biblical texts?

In the words of a prophetic song of the sixties, the Who sang: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. I get on my knees and pray, we don’t get fooled again.” These are ancient lyrics. Their equivalent were sung by the slaves of Egypt, and of Babylon, and those the under the oppressive arm of the Roman Empire. Still, to this day, the lyrics resonate through a world of violence, greed, and self-interest. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss, and yes, we’ll get fooled again and again. The Bible is the strongest critique of our current situation than anything else imagined. The word of the Lord echoes down the centuries: Woe to you false leaders who say peace, peace, when there is no peace.

The power Jesus used was quiet. It was not “Shock and Awe” as a blistering assault on the innocent. Instead, it empowers, heals, feeds, consoles. It was, and continues to be, the power of reconciliation and peace. Jesus did not resort to self-interest. He resisted violence, retaliation, and revenge. The preacher can imagine the scene: When Jesus saw the crowd, he went with his disciples and sat down on the mountain. We think of Moses, who was a liberator. Jesus is presented as liberator. He is one who gives. There is no need for hoarding or elbowing to be first in line. There was plenty to go around, with more left over. His was the power of abundance and life. He took the loaves and fish and gave thanks and then distributed them to the crowd.  Bread and fish “as much as they wanted.” And they were satisfied; there were leftovers. This is the one who they wanted to follow. Who wouldn’t want to follow him? 

Children and the Texts:

A topic for children can focus on the use and importance of biblical stories. You can begin by asking the children if they think Jesus had a radio. Of course not. Did he have a TV? How about movies or video games or books? Of course not. Jesus lived a long time ago, way before you were born, way before your great-great grandparents. Way before the United States became a country. Jesus was born so long ago that it’s hard to think of 2000 years. Talk about how different life was then. What did they do for entertainment? They worked long days and lived in quiet villages. They probably told stories. They told stories about Moses and Noah, King David, and all the other Bible characters we have come to know. They didn’t have special effects, did they? No, the story had to include very dramatic things: storms and clouds and wind and wars. The teller of the story probably was good if they included all of these special effects and sounds.

When we read about the most famous story, the story of Jesus, we notice how dramatic the story is. There’s the Christmas part of the story, and healing parts, and teaching parts. Then there are the troubled parts when some people didn’t like Jesus and they made him die. But then there is the Easter story about how his death couldn’t stop God from doing what God wanted and that is to create life. It’s all very dramatic, isn’t it?

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.

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