Glynn Cardy 11 Samuel 11:26 – 12:11a
Sun 01 Aug
In the closest thing we have to a Presbyterian prayerbook, the baptismal rite begins with verses from scripture, a short blessing of the water, and then the baptism itself. Anything about the baptismal candidate or, in the case of a baby, their parents, any commitment to follow the way of Jesus, comes after the aquatic action.
This is to emphasize that there are no conditions that Rosanna, or any candidate, needs to comply with in order to be baptized. Baptism is premised on God’s unconditional welcome and acceptance, not just of Rosanna, not just of those baptized, but of every human being on earth whether baptized or not.
In response to a question about when he became a Christian, Karl Barth notably responded: “33 AD”. In Barthian theology it was the actions of God in Christ, his death and resurrection, that met the conditions for our acceptance by God. We then just needed to believe that and act upon it.
As might not be a surprise to you, I’m no Barthian. I believe it has always been the nature of God to unconditionally love, accept, and embrace all people regardless of what they believe or don’t believe, how they act or fail to act. Jesus just highlighted that. Like the father of the prodigal son, God embraces us no matter where we’ve been, how low we’ve fallen, and no matter what our motivation is in turning (if we do turn). Just because our nature might lead us into all sorts of reprehensible actions, it does not change God’s nature. We don’t have to say sorry, or repent, to be loved by God.
And further I believe that our attempts to reduce God to the size of our understandings of love and justice, and make God a rule-giver, a compliance officer, and a judge and punisher of rule-breakers, not only changes the essence of God from unconditional love to conditional, but has wrought much psychological damage via the guilt-blame-fear gang over the centuries, and even today.
So, first and foremost, baptism is a celebration of the nature of God, which is to unconditionally love and accept all people.
Secondly, baptism is a call – not just to Rosanna – but to her and all of us here, to (in the words of FD Maurice) ‘become who we are’. We are children of God. We are blessed. Accepted. Always welcome. Never discarded. Never written off. Now we need to live and act in ways that reflect just that. We need to live the spirited love and justice essence (what I call G/god) in our lives.
In the text today from 2 Samuel 11 there are four characters: David the king, Nathan the prophet, Uriah the recently deceased soldier and husband, and the unnamed Bathsheba, formerly Uriah’s wife and now one of David’s seven.
David is portrayed as having erred, and following Nathan’s challenging story, repents.
The backstory is about David stealing. It’s not a saga about lust or romance. Leonard Cohen in his Hallelujah song might read it as such but biblical scholars wouldn’t concur. Wives were property. David had some, wanted more, and had concubines too. As an absolute monarch he could have any woman he wanted. He could take what goods he wanted.
Or so he thought. For this story is primarily about the limits on a king’s power in Hebrew society at that time. If you wanted another man’s property there was a process to go through. And that process did not involve planning the death of one of your most faithful soldiers (Uriah) in order to disguise the fact that you had impregnated his wife while he was fighting for you.
Nathan was a court prophet. In David’s court. He was more like an advisor on the payroll than a wild one like Elijah out there in the desert dependent on the generosity of ravens. Nathan was consulted about David’s building hopes. He got involved in court politics. He presided at the anointing of David’s successor, King Solomon (whose mother is Bathsheba). Nathan also wrote histories and was a musician, according to the traditions.
So smart. A bright guy. One who survived and endured. He was respected and came to acquire considerable status. But always he was dependent upon the King’s favour.
Well, how do you tell your boss, even if he’s outwardly religious, that he’s stealing and he’s manipulative? Anyone got any experience of that? I would imagine ‘carefully’. Speaking truth to power sounds good in principle… But you might have to have a ‘parachute’ or Plan B or at least a lawyer ready for when the boss decides he likes his own truth better.
Nathan, like Jesus later would, decides to package truth in a parable. Disguise it. Kind of like giving medicine to a dog. So, Nathan crafts this story about a pet lamb that the poor man so loved that they befriended and cherished each other. Lamb and man. Lovely. But then the rich man came along, and wanting to be hospitable to a stranger, decided to take the poor man’s lamb to feed the stranger with rather than with one from his own flock. So, the rich man steals from the poor man.
Why does the rich man steal? The parable is unclear. Parables often have opaque bits. Is it greed that drives theft? Or disregard, even denigration, of the owner (the poor man)? Or is it because the rich man can? A kind of self-infatuation with one’s own muscle.
Nathan gets lucky. David responds to the challenge firstly with anger over who would do such a thing to the poor man and his lamb; and then with remorse when he realizes he is the culprit.
As for Bathsheba, like a piece of property, the story rarely uses her name – calling her ‘she’ or ‘the wife of Uriah’, and presents her as a passive survivor. It’s not unlike the experience of many women in patriarchal societies, even today, subjected to male politics and power and trying to survive. Note that the First Book of Kings though presents Bathsheba, on her way to be the King’s mother, as much more than a passive survivor.
I’m interested that Nathan in his parable uses the metaphor ‘lamb’ for Bathsheba. While it is a metaphor that makes her other than human, it also removes her for any blame. And the cultural context is one that regularly blamed women for bad male behaviour. ‘What’s new?’ you ask.
The metaphor of ‘lamb’ has a religious pedigree. Chiefly, the Passover. The legend goes that it was the blood of an innocent lamb smeared on the doorway lintels of Jewish homes that spared their infants from the deaths that beset Egyptian families.
The lamb ‘vaccinated’ them. But it didn’t vaccinate them from the anger that followed. An anger that saw the Jews as causing the deaths. An anger that wanted the Jews then to leave. And which the Jews gladly did.
What is history and what isn’t of this legend is not all that important. For our purposes the importance lies in the metaphor of a lamb as instrumental in the deliverance of a people, a metaphor remembered each Pesach.
Similarly, as our Christian forbears appropriated the Passover as a way of remembering both the death of Jesus and his going ‘life’ or ‘spirit’ among them, the lamb too featured. In the 4th gospel, as we heard this morning, Jesus was called the ‘lamb’ of God (agnus dei). And amongst the many ways of understanding his death and resurrection, there is a likening of Jesus to those lambs whose blood was smeared on lintels.
Not that it’s a particularly good metaphor for Jesus. Was he an innocent? Many of his words and actions were provocative. Did his death, his blood, deliver his followers but allowed the death of others? I hope not. The metaphor quickly loses its appeal when taken literally in any sense.
But I’m interested in whether Nathan, probably knowing the Passover legend, saw a correlation with Bathsheba? Did her blamelessness lay bare or expose the blame of others? As a survivor of sexual assault did her story expose, lay bare, the culpability of the powerful – both those who assault and those who excuse those who do the assaulting (including sometimes the laws of the land)? Did her blamelessness, the telling/baring of her story, protect in some way women in the future who might be preyed on by a king or similar? And maybe if we wanted to locate G/god in this story, we should look not to the super David, or courageous Nathan, but the blameless Bathsheba who both bears the pain (remember too that her child died) and bares (exposes) the injustice.
This text today reminds us that our baptismal calling to ‘become who we are’, to follow the way of Jesus, the way of justice/peace, is often not easy.
Like David, we might know we are blessed, consider others less than blessed, and be tempted to take advantage of our power, to their disadvantage. We can be thieves of others’ trust, thieves of others’ happiness, thieves driven by greed and/or our needs, to the detriment of all. We are called to face the worst in ourselves.
Like Nathan, we might need to find ways of saying difficult things; to question and challenge even the most powerful, including the ones who are allegedly ‘chosen by God’ (like David). Our baptismal calling will involve the risk of offending others; and the risk of ourselves being wrong.
Like Bathsheba, we might need to learn to survive the assaults of the powerful; learn to survive the pain and shame and blame. To find strength in friends. To together hold up our innocence to lay bare the greed and hypocrisy of others. To be a lamb who will not be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘keeping it quiet’. A strong, powerful, lamb of G/god – one, who in concert with others (like Nathan), takes on the sins of the world.