Friday, August 28, 2015
Did David Get Off Too Easily? Justice and Mercy (August 2, 2015)
Homily: Yr B P18, August 2 2015, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Sam 11.26-12.13; Ps 51; Eph 4.1-16; Jn 6.24-35
On Thursday night, I witnessed a murder. I went to see the 9th Hour Theatre Company production of Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business, directed by our own Jonathan Harris. It is the story of Adam and Eve, and their children Cain and Abel, an old, old story as retold by Arthur Miller. And the climatic act of the play, as in chapter four of the book of Genesis, is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. This gruesome act raises questions of justice. How should Cain be punished? Who is to blame? Is God to blame for creating a world in which such things can happen? What are the consequences of sin and evil?
The play doesn’t answer these questions. It simply ends there, with a dark acknowledgement of the shadow side of the human condition, and a plea for mercy. The story from the book of Genesis does continue however, and it continues with an unraveling. That first act of violence leads to more acts of violence, generation after generation until by the days of Noah, the Lord looks upon the earth and sees that the earth is filled with violence, and that the wickedness of humankind is great, and so he sends a flood to wipe humanity off the face of the earth, saving only a remnant with which to begin again.
Even in the world of the story, the great flood was, alas, only a temporary reprieve. We were reminded of that last Sunday when we heard the story of David and Bathsheba. How King David abuses his power by committing adultery with another man’s wife, against her will. How he lies and tries to cover it up unsuccessfully. How he then murders the other man, Uriah, by arranging to have him killed in battle, causing others to die with him.
I think that Zack in his preaching last week was particularly effective in conveying our collective disgust and disappointment at these repulsive acts performed by someone who until that point in the story we had regarded as a hero.
Today, we take up the story again, and we begin with judgement:
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, because he had done what was evil in his sight.
And here are raised some of the same questions which were raised in the play I saw on Thursday. What will be the consequences? How will justice be served, if at all? Has God left the building, have we been left on our own to figure this out?
No. At least not completely. In the face of injustice, God speaks to us through prophets. The Lord sent Nathan to David. Not, on the face of it, a great assignment for Nathan, let’s just say it was a bit risky. So he comes at the king sideways, with a story.
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had brought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”
Which of us when we hear that story can fail to know what is right and what is wrong? As humans we have an innate moral sense, an innate sense of justice. We know what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes, especially in our own day, there are people who try to tell us that everything is relative. That justice and morality are merely human inventions and social conventions. And while we can acknowledge that some ethical decisions get complicated, and sometimes there are grey areas, and sometimes we need to consider context and culture, we also need to assert that moral relativism in its absolute form is just plain wrong. When we hear Nathan’s story, we know what is right and what is wrong. Somehow God has given us the knowledge and the ability to make that ethical judgment across cultures and across the generations.
Even David gets this one right. Freed from his own subjectivity and self-interest by Nathan’s third-person narrative, untainted by personal desire and the corrupting influence of power in this particular case, he is rightly angered at the rich man who takes the poor man’s lamb. But his anger is soon turned inward.
“You are the man!”
It’s one of those moments when the light bulb suddenly goes on. Have you had one of those, either a good one, or a bad one like the one David just experienced? A sudden insight about who you really are as a person? That’s what David is having. It’s a moment of great insight, and it’s a moment of great fear.
And Nathan doesn’t let him off the hook, at least not just yet. He doesn’t say, “You are the man, but everything is going to be alright.” No, he tells him that this is going to be the turning point in his life and that it’s all downhill from here. There will be consequences. There are always consequences to sin. Sin has a terrible destructive and unraveling power. Read on in the book of second Samuel. David’s family is divided and destroyed. His son rapes his brother’s sister. The brother kills the perpetrator. David’s wives are abused by another son, as part of a deliberate campaign to overthrow his father. The kingdom of David degenerates into a series of violent plots and civil warfare. Again, none of this should surprise us. We know what happens to a family when there is a breach of trust, when violence and abuse erupts. The negative effects can last for generations, claiming both innocent and guilty in their wake.
So there are consequences to sin. There is a sort of justice that plays out, though I hesitate to call it God’s justice, or the form of justice that we might want.
Confronted by Nathan, David recognizes his sin. He repents. He confesses. “I have sinned against the Lord.” The long version of that confession is in your booklets, it is the Psalm that we heard read together this morning.
In response, Nathan says to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Nathan absolves David of his sin. There will still be consequences, but there is absolution. Forgiveness.
Does David get off too easily?
In the panel discussion after the play on Thursday night we talked about justice. And mercy. And how the pursuit of justice without mercy will be a hard road to follow. And we also talked about how, maybe, the principal problem in the human condition as illustrated by the play is not simply injustice, but the bigger problem of alienation in our relationship with God and alienation in our relationships with each other, in which sin and injustice certainly play their part. If the problem is alienation, then can the pursuit of justice alone lead to reconciliation? Love, repentance, forgiveness, mercy – surely all of these also have a role to play.
And so what is the relationship between justice and mercy, how do we balance the two?
David repents, confesses his sin and receives mercy, while the blood of his victim Uriah still cries out from the ground for justice.
Did David get off too easily?