Text: 2 Samuel 11:1-15
While I don’t know if it originated with Bill Finlator, he would often say that a preacher should preach holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Well, Bill, this one is for you. Each morning, this past week, as I would sit and read the newspaper, I would filter what I was reading through this story from 2 Samuel that we have heard read this morning: a story of arrogant misuse of power; a portrait of one of Israel’s greatest kings that includes his weaknesses and vulnerabilities; a sordid tale that serves as a cautionary lesson on the nearness of violence to those who live with power; a story that reminds us that even those most admired and most accomplished are not immune to the temptation of power.
Listen to some of the headlines and opening sentences of the news this past week.
Headline: Baby injured; lives in turmoil / Woman who ran day care charged
Opening Sentence: A day care operator who spent much of her life tending babies now faces a charge that she shook one so violently that he’ll never recover.
Headline: In face of charges, a lawyer vanishes / He was once a rising star in Johnston
Opening Sentence: Johnston County lawyer Chad Lee was always around. He’d toil in his Market Street office late at night and log hours on weekends, as his colleagues relaxed at the beach. Now, Lee’s gone, having vanished nearly a month ago as a reckoning edged closer.
Headline: In scholar’s arrest, many see everyday reality / City apologizes to black scholar
Opening Sentence: Prosecutors dropped a disorderly conduct charge Tuesday against prominent black scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was arrested by a white officer at his home near Harvard University after a report of a break-in. The city of Cambridge issued a statement saying the arrest “was regrettable and unfortunate…”
Daily, along with these headlines, were articles about racism and gender inequity issues that surround the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Sonia Sotomayor, there were front page articles and endless editorials about Bernie Madoff and his fall from grace; and last but not least, the unending headlines detailing the NC State University/Governor Easley saga. Nestled within each of these stories are issues of the misuse of power, the weakness and vulnerability inherent in humanity, and the reality of how our choices affect those around us.
All joking aside, when I read what is reported in the News & Observer about the NC State/Easley story and then read David’s tale in 2 Samuel it is quite astounding how similar they are. Yes, the specifics are different and no one has died in the process of hiding emails; yet, the abuse of power, the weaknesses revealed in good people making bad choices, and the impact of those on others is at the core of both stories. When I read these stories, I wonder why it is that we feel that we have to cover up our mistakes, our weaknesses, and follow a path of deceit and wrongdoing. Why is it so hard for us to admit when we make a mistake? I also wonder if there is a lesson for us in David’s story, and in the stories we hear daily in our news, of the importance of learning how to fall and how we might gain wisdom from our own pain and the pain we cause others when we make bad choices. As people of faith, I wonder, what difference it might make if we were nurtured in a culture in which it was easier to tell the truth about our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and our sins instead of simply beating each other up when we do wrong. I’m not suggesting that there not be consequences for our mistakes, but rather I am simply wondering what it would be like if our society made it easier to tell the truth. What might that look like? And would it possibly create a space within our soul for us all to be more honest and less deceitful? My intent in asking these questions is to wonder out loud with you how our faith calls us to take a different path of response when facing what can feel like our worst moments-those times when we make mistakes and our weaknesses are exposed.
Throughout generations there has been an endless fascination with the tale of David and Bathsheba. From ancient rabbis to modern academics to numerous treatments of the David and Bathsheba story in art, poetry, literature, and film, efforts have been made to soften or distort the reality that good and well-meaning people sometimes make very bad decisions that cause tremendous pain for others.
Perhaps the most common distortion of the David and Bathsheba story throughout history is the attempt to portray Bathsheba as a seductress or co-conspirator, thereby transforming David to some degree from perpetrator to victim. This excerpt from a turn-of-the-century interpretation of this story has been typical of many treatments throughout the ages. I quote: “No one of good moral character could have acted as she did in her seduction and conquest of David. She doubtless exposed herself that the king might be tempted; she willingly came to the palace when she was sent for; and conspired with David for the murder of her husband.” This scapegoating of Bathsheba as the temptress who led David astray was present in many of the ancient rabbinic efforts to soften David’s guilt, and it is still present in our culture today-falsely softening our guilt.
Another common effort to soften or distort the reality that sometimes good, well-meaning people make bad choices is the search for mitigating circumstances that help to explain, if not justify, our actions. In a 1985 film, King David, Bathsheba reveals to a shocked David that Uriah is an abusive husband, thus giving David a noble motive for the act of murder and the rescue of an abused woman. It is true, our society-our culture-has taught us well how to rationalize our mistakes and weaknesses into believing that we can justify anything we do.
Possibly though, the most powerful form of distortion of our weaknesses and mistakes that our culture teaches, both the young and old, is that of romanticizing our mistakes. Just think about how we describe Bathsheba: a very beautiful woman with whom David fell in love when he saw her bathing. What better way to soften the harshness of this story than to make it a love story? Indeed, David and Bathsheba often make the list of the world’s great lovers, alongside Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and others. But when we romanticize our sins, our wrongdoings, our weaknesses, we do so at the expense of our own soul and spirit. When we choose to try and make our mistakes look attractive instead of telling the truth about who we are and what we are sometimes capable of doing, we lose ourselves and we miss the opportunity to learn and gain wisdom from the mistakes we make as real human beings.
How might David’s story been different had he said, “I messed up and I am ready to make amends?” For sure, fewer people would have suffered. What internal freedom might Bernie Madoff feel today if he could say, “I messed up and I am ready to take responsibility and make amends?” What courage might it give our country if all our leaders who have abused their power, and who have had their weaknesses-their sins-exposed could have, instead of covering up, stepped up and said, “I messed up and I am ready to take responsibility and make amends?” And what if our collective culture could focus less on shaming those who make mistakes and focus more on holding them accountable in ways that are redemptive and compassionate? It saddens me to my core that we live in a culture that feels it necessary to keep kicking a person who is already down. I know it might sound naïve, but more than anything I have wanted to say to our NC State neighbors who have been in the papers lately, “You made a mistake, now how can we be with you through it?”
Our faith does not proclaim a cheap grace. It does, however, as I understand it, extend both grace and compassion when good, well-meaning people make mistakes. But I imagine that before we can fully understand God’s grace and compassion, we must first be willing to accept that being fully human will mean learning how to fall and then to have the courage to learn from the wisdom of our pain and the pain we cause others. To avoid the reality and the truth that all of us mess up and to simply keep scapegoating, rationalizing, and romanticizing our humanity only diminishes the gift God has given us-the gift of being fully human. Nowhere in scripture can I find that God expects us to be anything other than fully human-with all our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But everywhere in scripture what I do find is God inviting us, in the fullness of our humanity-in the presence of our failures, our mistakes, and our weaknesses-to take the path of truth and honesty and responsibility.
In one hand we hold the newspaper. Our newspapers today are filled with stories that highlight the pains of what happens to us when we try to cover up our humanity. In the other hand, we hold the Bible. This book is inviting us to take a different path-to live into the fullness of our humanity, sins and all. When we make mistakes, we don’t have to cover-up. We don’t have to lie about them. We don’t have to find a scapegoat. We don’t have to rationalize or romanticize. All we really need to do is to believe that the path of truth is paved with God’s grace and compassion.
All of us mess up; some of us worse than others. In those moments we have a choice. We can choose the path of covering up the reality of who we are and what we are capable of; or we can choose the path that leads us to the fullness of our humanity and embrace the truth that as good, well-meaning people, we sometimes simply mess up. This latter path is harder to walk. But it is the path that sets us free.