Scripture: 2 Samuel 12:1-9a
I have been incredibly fascinated to observe the rise of Donald Trump in Republican polls. But here is what I find troubling: that many attribute Trump’s allure to his “winner takes all” approach. During Thursday’s debate, in responding to a question about his multiple bankruptcies, Trump stated, repeatedly, that he had “taken advantage of the laws of this country, like other people.” It is true, of course. There is nothing illegal about Trump’s bankruptcy proceedings, although they have negatively impacted his creditors, business partners and employees. But it does introduce an interesting moral question: Is it OK to take advantage of a situation simply because we can? And, as people of faith, a faith whose “founder” gave even his own life, how are we called to live in a “winner takes all” culture?
This morning's Old Testament scripture is the story of David, the shepherd boy turned king. He is just a young, scrawny boy taking care of his father's sheep when he is catapulted to fame by slaying the Philistine giant Goliath. David is also a musician and he serves King Saul by playing the harp for him. Saul, however, feels threatened by David and, on multiple occasions, tries to kill him. Yet even after his menacing behavior, David continues to show Saul respect and deference. David is, consistently, a man of grace and strength and honor.
Well, up to a point.
The story of David and Bathsheba begins with 2 Samuel, chapter 11, where the scene is set with these words: "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him... But David remained at Jerusalem." That summary introduction tells us a great deal. In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the Israelites beg the prophet Samuel for a king and this is the rationale behind their demand: a king will “go out before us and fight our battles.”[i] Yet here it is: the time of the year when kings go out to the battlefield – and, David is not on the battlefield. He is at home in Jerusalem, in his palace, busying himself with afternoon strolls on the rooftop. David, once a humble, courageous shepherd boy is now a well-established monarch. No more sleeping in foxholes or eating MRE rations for him. Now, he is "the man." He's become too important, perhaps, to jeopardize his life on the battlefront. Others now do that for him. And he, perhaps, has too much time on his hands, just ticking away. So he goes for a late afternoon stroll on the rooftop. We're not told why. Perhaps the roof provided a good vantage point from which to look out over his empire. That would certainly be enough to give anyone an inflated sense of power. And as David strolls across the roof, he spots below him a beautiful woman bathing. Perhaps in his younger days David might have looked away, his ruddy complexion turning redder still with embarrassment; but not anymore. Now, David indulges in this forbidden pleasure and takes it even a step further. He inquires of his servants about the identity of this woman and he's told that her name is Bathsheba. Her father is Eliam and her husband is Uriah the Hittite. Remember that this was a time when a woman didn't have her own identity. She was identified by the man to whom she belonged. And in this case, she belongs to Uriah. Uriah is a foreigner who serves in David's army. He is out of town; away fighting on David's behalf. So, David decides to take advantage of Uriah's absence and he instructs his servants to go fetch this Bathsheba and bring her to him and David takes her. Now, when I say that, I mean it as a euphemism – so I don't need to spell it out in the pulpit. But I also mean it literally. David takes her because he's king and what the king wants the king takes. David's behavior is a fulfillment of the warning the prophet Samuel gave to the people of Israel long before... again, back in 1 Samuel, chapter 8.
You see, it had never been God's desire that Israel should have a king because God was their king. They didn't need a king… anymore than modern day England does. But, they were enamored with the thought. And so, God gives in to their request. But not before God gives them a stern warning, delivered via the prophet Samuel. God warns them that kings are "takers." A king will take their sons and make them fight in his army. A king will take their daughters and make them servants in his palace. A king will take the harvest of their fields and the fruit of their vines. A king will even take their slaves and their livestock and there won't be a darn thing they can do about it because that's just the way kings are. Kings are takers. And so David takes Bathsheba. But David gets more than he bargained for when he is soon informed that Bathsheba is pregnant. But, not to worry; because here's another thing about kings: they control things. Kings are spin artists. Kings have the resources to tidy up whatever mess they've made. And so David sends for Uriah. He calls him back from the front assuming that Uriah will sleep with his wife while on furlough and, since there was no such thing as a paternity test in antiquity, Uriah will assume the child to be his and everything will be taken care of. David assumes Uriah will sleep with his lovely wife Bathsheba. After all, she's irresistible, isn't she? But David's little plan backfires because Uriah does not go home to his wife. He bunkers down with David's palace guards. David is perplexed. He inquires into Uriah's strange behavior and Uriah informs him that he just doesn't think it would be right for him to be home eating and drinking and enjoying his lovely wife while his buddies are out on the battlefield. David's plan is foiled when Uriah displays the kind of honor and integrity we would have expected from David. And so, David determines, he has no other choice but to eliminate Uriah. So he sends Uriah back to the battlefront carrying his own death warrant. He gives Uriah a letter that he is asked to deliver to the commander, Joab. The message is, no doubt, sealed with the official signet, to insure that Uriah can't tamper with it. The letter reads: "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die." Those are Joab's instructions. But they are easier said than done because Joab risks mutiny if he's not careful. If Uriah's elimination is too obvious, the troops are liable to see through it and Joab will risk losing their loyalty and their trust. So Joab comes up with a plan. I won't give you all the details. But the end result is this. Many men die. Many die for the sake of one in a military advance that appears to go terribly, terribly wrong. When the fateful skirmish has come to an end, Joab dispatches another messenger to take news to David. The messenger is to describe the battle and its results. And, should David become angry that so many men perished in a poorly planned advance, the messenger is to make clear to him that, among the many killed, was Uriah the Hittite. The messenger delivers the news. Curiously, he does not wait for David's response but, early in his delivery, cites the death of Uriah. Perhaps this messenger (and others) knows more than they let on. David is relieved, but his charade continues. He sends a final message to Joab. He literally tells him, "Do not let this matter grieve you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it." That's what David says. But what he means is: "Well done, Joab. You knew what I needed you to do and you did it. Now, carry on as if nothing's ever happened."
But something has happened. Perhaps some, like the messenger or palace guards, have even figured it out. Who knows? But, either way, it doesn't really matter, does it? The king is the king and we'll just look the other way.
But there is one whose gaze David cannot escape. For there is one from whom we can hide nothing. That one is the Lord God. And you can't fool him, no matter who you are. Someone in this story is going to grieve – and that someone is God. Chapter 12 of 2 Samuel opens by telling us that what David did grieved the Lord; grieved him enough to confront the king through the prophet Nathan. Now Nathan is no dummy. He knows court prophets don't have job security. It’s a dangerous job. It’s a wonder God could find any one to do it.
So Nathan cleverly enters David's presence on the pretense of needing David's help to settle a legal dispute. There are these two guys – one rich, one poor. [In other words, one with power and one quite powerless.] The rich one has lots of herds and flocks and the poor guy has but one little lamb that he dearly loves. It's like a member of his family. Now a visitor comes to the home of the rich man and, in the Middle East, hospitality is a serious thing. For company, you kill the fatted calf, you get out the good china, you break open the best bottle of wine. But this rich guy decides he doesn't want to sacrifice one of his own animals for the feast. Instead, he'll take his neighbor's little pet lamb. David has been listening attentively. And at this point in the story, he erupts with royal indignation. "How dare this man be so… so merciless! He'll pay for his lack of mercy, his lack of honor and he'll pay dearly." Nathan – perhaps looking his king straight in the eye powerfully levels the indictman: "You are the man." And David knows that he has been caught.
But that's not all. For now the prophet Nathan speaks those words that are the trademarks of prophetic speech "Thus saith the Lord…" Those words must have been enough to send a shiver down David's spine. And this is what the Lord said: "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 I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have given you much more." God, the giver of every good gift, has blessed David abundantly. David has, we have, what we have because God, who is compassionate, gave it to us. Because that is just the way God is. God is a giver.
It is curious to note in this story that David uses a very particular word to judge the “rich man” in Nathan’s parable. David claims that it is more than his actions that have earned him punishment when he says, “because he did this thing AND because he had no compassion.” Not surprisingly, there are different Hebrew words that can be used to describe the concept of compassion. But the one David chooses has a particular meaning. It literally means “to restrain oneself.” In other words, this describes more than the emotion, or feeling, of compassion. This describes the kind of restrained behavior someone demonstrates because they feel compassion. When we have compassion, just as God has compassion for us, we don’t simply take what we have the power to take or flaunt our authority.
Perhaps you have recently heard the story of Dan Price, the founder and CEO of Gravity Payments based in Seattle. In April of this year, Price decided to make changes to the compensation rates at his company when he set the compensation for every employee, himself included, at $70,000 annually. Now, most of us don’t live in the multi-million dollar world of multi-national corporations and we could sit here the rest of the morning discussing a myriad of questions related to Price’s decision… everything from the fact that he can probably still maintain his same lifestyle simply by living off his investments to questions of incentive and fairness among his employees. But this is the part of the story that fascinates me: that Price chose NOT to do what he had every right to do. Whether we think about it or not, David’s actions were nothing radical for a king in the ancient world. They took women all the time. It was how they did business. No one expected anything different. Well, no one except God. Nor is there anything radical about CEO’s having 7 or 8 digit compensation packages. It’s how business is done. We don’t expect anything different. But maybe God does. Now, to the best of my knowledge, none of you here this morning are royalty or CEO’s of multi-national corporations. And yet, in much smaller ways, on much smaller scales, we too face choices about whether or not we will be takers or givers.
Old Testament bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says of this tale: "If we face up to this story at all, we are soon made to face the harder questions of human desire and human power… This story is more than we want to know about David and more than we can bear to understand about ourselves."
Friends, there are within our world, those who, in response to desire, simply take; take because they can, because it’s just the way the world works; but there are also those who give, who comprehend that God is the ultimate giver of every good and perfect gift; that true authority comes through humility; that true profit comes through sacrifice; that winning comes through surrender; and that the rules of the world are different than the rules in the kingdom of God. And for that may we say, “Thanks be to God.”
[i] 1 Samuel 8:20. NRSV
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