Pentecost 10 (Proper 12/Ordinary 17): Year B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

The story of David and Uriah and Bathsheba is a story about the abuse of power, and how individuals are often the unwitting pawns of those who possess power and use it to their own ends.

The background to the story is that the Israelites are at war with their traditional enemies, the Ammonites; but while the army is out in the field engaging the enemy, David has remained in Jerusalem. The significance of this detail is that, with the army away fighting the Ammonites, there would have been very few men of rank left in Jerusalem (or anywhere else); David would have been more or less alone in a city full of women and the elderly. In other words, an absolute monarch in a context in which there was no-one of sufficient seniority and eminence to caution David and even exert a restraining influence upon him.

And thus it is that he spies the beautiful Bathsheba while she is bathing one day. The fact that her bathing occurs in the context of purifying herself at the end of her menstrual cycle, as required by the Mosaic Law, adds a tone of ominousness – her “ritual impurity” points to the actual impurity of David’s subsequent actions. And while modern audiences might be tempted to regard this association between menstruation and impurity as another example of the patriarchal sexism of the biblical text, one needs only observe the discomfort which the subject of menstruation still evokes – especially among men – to realise that it is still a “taboo” subject associated with “dirtiness” – even in these supposedly “enlightened” times!

David goes to the lengths of finding out more information about Bathsheba; but even after he discovers she is the wife of one of his officers, such is his lust for her that he compels her to come to his palace, and has sex with her. Nor do we even need to ask whether or not this sexual intercourse was consensual: as noted above, David was an absolute monarch; whereas Bathsheba, as a “mere” woman, and the wife of a foreigner to boot (albeit a foreigner in David’s service) was in no position to resist, especially with her husband and other men of rank away on campaign. And even if the sex was consensual, David was still in the wrong: Bathsheba was already married; and David was exploiting his own position of power to service his desires.

When the consequences of David’s actions become apparent through Bathsheba’s pregnancy, David then tries to shamefully manipulate the situation in order avoid his responsibility. He has Uriah recalled to Jerusalem under the pretext of having him deliver a report about the progress of the war against the Ammonites; then David tells Uriah to go home, expecting that he will do what returning soldiers “usually” do: have sex with his wife. But Uriah, conscious of the hardships which his comrades in the field continue to endure, declines to enjoy the luxuries of home life and remains outside his own front door. David then tries a “plan B” and gets Uriah drunk; but still the virtuous Hittite does not go home to Bathsheba. The reason why David wants Uriah to have sex with Bathsheba is obvious: so that her pregnancy can be linked to Uriah’s brief return to Jerusalem. David is attempting to manipulate the situation in order to cover up his wrong doing.

Frustrated by Uriah’s nobility, David does something truly horrific: he sends an instruction to his army commander, Joab, to arrange for Uriah’s death in battle – and makes Uriah the deliverer of his own death warrant! The cynicism of this act is truly breathtaking; but, David, unable to manipulate Uriah, determines to have him killed off, so that there might be no-one who could later accuse him of abuse of power. David is not only intent on ensuring that his acts never see the light of day, his acts themselves proceed from his sense of entitlement. But the very fact that he attempts to conceal both the acts and the entitlement of which they are a product reveals David’s own awareness of his wrongdoing.

Unrestrained power is the power to manipulate and use others for our own benefit; it is the ultimate exercise in objectification, in which people are reduced merely to a means to the end of our own gratification, or an object in the way of our wish fulfilment. If the former, they are to be manipulated and abused; if the latter, sidelined or even destroyed. The very fact of being able to exercise that power becomes its own justification: why, otherwise, would the power exist if not to be used over and against others?

Modernity’s construction of work and economy contains many examples of unrestrained power. Many workers are deeply conscious of their powerlessness in the face of an organisational hierarchy in which the privilege of decision-making is exercised by a relative few, while the responsibility for making those decisions “work” is born by the many. Moreover, this is a paradigm in which authority does not come with accountability: while many executives and directors who lose their positions because of bad leadership or poor decision-making are compensated with “golden handshakes” worth (in many cases) millions of dollars, ordinary workers who are dismissed for incompetence or as a result of “restructuring” frequently receive only a few weeks (or months) wages – and often far less than that.

Moreover, here in Australia as a particular example, recent years have seen a succession of scandals in which both large corporations and small businesses have been guilty of grossly and systematically underpaying their employees. This wage theft has often affected workers in highly marginal and notoriously low-paying industries, such as retail, hospitality, and the cleaning/services sector. Moreover, it has been shown that many corporations operating on a franchising model have structured their franchise agreements so that, as the franchisor, their own profitability is maximised, while the franchisees are forced into such a financially perilous position that they have been forced to exploit their staff in order to stay afloat.

Moreover, in those cases when corporations or wealthy individuals are discovered to have been exploiting ordinary workers or engaging in other forms of unconscionable conduct, they frequently use their wealth or influence to hire public relations experts, lawyers, media personalities, and others to present an image of themselves as the “real victims” – they claim, for example, to be the objects of a “smear campaign”, or the targets of the “politics of envy”. In other words, they seek to use their position and resources to manipulate or confuse the situation in order to escape responsibility for their conduct.

Similarly, at the international level, governments backed by corporate lobbyists are agitating for the implementation of multilateral trade agreements that include, among other things, so-called “investor-state dispute resolution” clauses that would enable corporations to sue governments if those governments enact legislation – such as labour, environment, or consumer protection laws – that impede a company’s ability to make a profit. Why would governments enact agreements enabling them to be sued? Firstly, because many of the politicians behind the push for such agreements are themselves supported by corporate lobbyists, and can look forward to well-paying positions in the corporate sector once they leave politics. Secondly, because such agreements provide governments with an excuse to do nothing in the face of domestic pressure to enact beneficial social laws, on the grounds that such legislation would “slow economic growth” or “make our country less competitive” or would “violate international obligations”.

These examples of the imbalance/abuse of power evoke the same sense of entitlement with which David acted. His absolute power as a monarch mirrors the pervasive and often absolute power which the owners of capital and the wealthy managerial class exercise in modern society. Modernity’s placement of waged labour at the centre of human life enables those who benefit from this placement to steal that which does not belong to them, or to accumulate vast wealth at the expense of vulnerable others. Moreover, they are justified in doing so because their “success” is itself has acquired a moral value: those who are poor or unemployed or consigned to the margins of society are to be written off as “lazy” or “parasitic” or even “self-entitled”. The terrible irony of modernity is that all the attributes of absolute and abusive power – entitlement, theft, exploitation – have come to be assigned to the most helpless and powerless among us.

When we consider this reading from Second Samuel, we should consider all those who are abused, exploited, manipulated, and, finally, put to death by modernity’s construction of work and economy. They are the Bathsheba and Uriah of our times.

Psalm 14

This Psalm is a lament, not merely about the existence of wrongdoing, but about its prevalence in a corrupt culture. The psalmist observes not merely that the powerful wicked do wrong, but that the entire society in which they live is consumed by corruption. This is a society in which people are “consumed” like bread; in which corruption feeds off the very human community in which it has taken root. Moreover, this is a society which gives no regard for the consequences, as though such consequences do not exist; corruption spreads and acts, heedless of the fact that the decay that is its natural by-product will rebound upon its practitioners.

The Psalmist looks to God to vindicate the few who are righteous in the face of society’s overwhelming predilection for corruption. In doing so, this Psalm reflects the plea for the righteous which Abraham makes in reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-33), as well as God’s vindication of those who repent when God decides not to destroy the “evil city” of Nineveh (Jonah 3:10; 4:9-11). The Psalmist does not seek God’s vengeance upon the wicked; rather, their warning is that their wickedness will have its own self-destructive consequences. Those who remain faithful to God will, by contrast, discover over the longer term the liberation and release that comes through God’s steadfast commitment to covenantal relationship.

There is an interesting connection between this Psalm and the issue of climate change. Although the overwhelming majority of the scientific community agrees that the evidence supports the hypothesis that the Earth’s climate is changing in various deleterious ways, and that this change is driven by the pollution that is the by-product of human industrial activity, meaningful steps toward reversing this trend is often hampered by a small minority of “sceptics” and politicians (who are often backed by parties with a vested financial interest) who argue such measures will impede “economic growth” or “reduce competitiveness”. In this sense, this situation is the reverse mirror image of the Psalm: instead of a small community of the righteous living in isolation within wider societal corruption, the majority are being negatively impacted by a minority. The majority, in this case, being the poor and the powerless, who are often the first and most adversely affected by climate change (rising oceans levels overwhelming Pacific nations; poor farmers being destroyed by catastrophic weather events). But this economic injustice, linked to environmental injustice, will ultimately have consequences for all, because our society is effectively kicking out from under itself the very structures it relies upon for its own survival.

And in just the same way that we continue to pollute the environment as though doing so will have no consequences, so modernity’s construction of waged labour and economy continues to pollute our understanding of the role and meaning of work in human life – again, as though doing so will have no consequences for us. Yet by placing waged labour at the centre of human life, we have made it both the key measure of human worth, and the primary standard by which we assess individuals’ standing in human society. This has the immediate effect of marginalising and stigmatising those who, for whatever reason, are not able to access waged labour, or who can only do so on intermittent and insecure terms. It also creates the “moral climate” in which the unemployed, underemployed or unable-to-be-employed are deemed to be not only “responsible” for their situation, but are dismissed as “parasites” feeding off the “hard work” of the rest of the community. Such a toxic “climate” is immensely destructive to human dignity.

Moreover, even those who are able to engage waged labour in any meaningful form are frequently harmed by exposure to it. “Working for a living” has become so central to modernity’s self-understanding that people live with the debilitating fear of being unemployed, of suddenly being cast onto the “scrap heap” that renders them both unable to “contribute” as well as thought of as “unproductive” or “lazy”. Such a climate of fear facilitates exploitation; but it also drives many millions of workers into unhealthy work practices, such as excessive overtime or compliance with unreasonable work demands. Indeed, such practices have become so chronic that in some countries there is a recognised culture of “death by overwork”; and even in countries with less extreme scenarios, the stresses and pressures of work are key contributors to preventable forms of death such as heart disease and suicide. At the same time surveys reveal that even in wealthy countries with high levels of secure or relatively secure employment, growing numbers of people are feeling more stressed, less empowered, and more disconnected to one another precisely because of the demands which waged labour, due to its centrality in modern life, makes upon them.

This Psalm is a plea to consider the consequences, and a lament that human society so often proceeds on the basis that such consequences don’t exist and won’t have an impact upon us. It is also a warning against the turning away from covenantal life – with God and with one another – that comes from placing man-made idols at the centre of human existence. In modernity, waged labour as the driver of “economic growth” has become the central idol of our lives; and we continue to worship this idol, and ignore its deleterious consequences, at our cost.

Ephesians 3:14-21

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the central ground of being that forms the basis, not only of human life, but of our relationships with one another and with God: love. But this “love” is not merely some trite, abstract concept associated either with human romanticism or sentimental notions of being “nice” to one another. Paul was aware, more than most, that our life together was not about being “nice” to one another – he was often distinctly “un-nice” to those whom he regarded as distorting the Gospel of Christ! Rather, the love of which Paul speaks is nothing less than the love of God in Christ that comes to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is a love that comes from, and is possessed by, the “fullness of God”. This fullness enables us to recognise and engage the depths of human brokenness, without being either tainted by it, or descending into the judgmentalism that presumes our own moral superiority. This fullness recognises the essential dignity of our creation in the likeness and image of God, and upholds that dignity even when it needs to engage in critique. This fullness recognises that the grounding of our being is rooted, not in “niceness”, but in a co-existence that seeks to be intentionally relational. This is the fullness that reflects and mirrors the fullness of God’s love for humankind, which stands in solidarity with human suffering, and which gives of itself for the sake of the other, and for redemptive engagement. In short, this is a fullness that radically reappraises the meaning and purpose of human life, seeing it through the same prism through which God views our existence.

Those who critique the political and economic status quo are often challenged to articulate a “viable alternative”, as though such an “alternative” was merely a matter of structural reorganisation or social realignment. But what those who smugly make this demand – on the basis that there is no alternative – fail to understand is that before new alternatives can be articulated and explored, a fundamental shift in first principles is required. In other words, if we attempt to change the status quo on the basis of the assumptions from which it proceeds, we won’t be able to adduce alternatives; all we will do is affirm the conviction of those who defend, and benefit from, the present reality that there is no alternative. However, what will occur if we don’t accept the assumptions of modernity and its emphasis on waged labour? Only by proceeding from the basis of a different set of first principles can we envision and enact something new.

What, for example, if we stopped viewing human beings as “units” in the “production cycle”, or as “cost centres” impacting upon productivity? What if we had an altogether different view of productivity itself – one related not to “economic growth”, but to humanity’s natural capacity for innovation, creativity, and co-operation? What if we understood “economy” not in its modern, technocratic sense, but through the lens of its original theological meaning: one which viewed human societies not as competing affiliations of mutually exclusive interests, but as a “household” whose diversity required “management” through co-operation rather than the leveraging competitive advantages? What if we stopped seeing the non-human ecology as a resource which existed for our exploitation, but as the very platform upon whose integrity our own existence depended?

In other words, what if we saw the whole of human existence through the lens of love: not the banal “love” of pop culture, or the exploitative “love” of self-interest; but the love of God that is invested in the fullness and redemption of human life. What if we proceeded, not from the basis of what we could earn or acquire, but from how we might be enriched spiritually and existentially? Of course, human beings will always have physical needs that need to be attended to; but even the fulfilment of this basic level of need is contingent upon how we understand our relationship with one another, a fact demonstrated by the exploitation that occurs through the provision of physical necessities. Ultimately, it is our attitude to one another that counts, for it is from our attitude that our first principles proceed; and it is upon our first principles that our social, political, and economic structures are built.

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a call to make the foundation of human existence the very love for humankind which God has shown us in Christ, and continues to extend to us through the movement of the Holy Spirit in human life. But in order to respond to that call we must first be open to the possibilities of that call: the possibility of change, the possibility of new ways of being. The possibility of a whole new set of first principles that re-envision what work and economy might “look like” and mean in human existence. The Kingdom which Christ proclaimed, and of which Paul called the Ephesians to become citizens, is not merely the Kingdom of the Eschaton; it is the Kingdom of the here and now, re-imagining human life in a way that foreshadows and enables the Kingdom to come. It is nothing less than the Kingdom of our own participation in God’s scheme of salvation.

John 6:1-21

This reading from the Gospel According to John is concerned with articulating the abundance of God; an abundance that isn’t concerned with its own self-gratifying elevation, or merely with some anodyne notion of “service” – but with opening our eyes to the richness available to us if only we re-oriented our own understanding of ourselves. And as with all the “miracle” stories of the Gospels, arguments over whether or not the events as depicted “really” took place misses the point, precisely because it is an argument that proceeds from a post-Enlightenment alignment of “facts” with “truth”. Rather, we always need to remember that the Gospels are theological statements about who Jesus is; and as such, we are liberated from the need to either read them literally or dismiss them as fantasies.

In this passage, Jesus is in the region of the Sea of Galilee; and such is his reputation for miracle working and authoritative teaching that he is being followed by a large crowd hopeful of receiving some insight or benefit from his hand. The time of the Passover Festival is approaching, and Jesus is concerned with providing the crowd a meal; not merely in order to feed them, but in order to provide a meal that is appropriate to a feast day marking God’s grace and generosity in the sacred history of Israel. Phillip confirms that such is the crowd’s size that a scale of economic resourcing simply unavailable to the ordinary people of the time – six months’ wages –  would be needed.  And so Jesus arranges for the crowd to be seated; and, drawing on the small resources available, proceeds to provide a meal for the crowd so substantial that they are unable to consume all that is provided.

Such is the crowd’s astonishment that they want to effectively take him prisoner and use him as a puppet to overthrow the rule of the imperial Roman government and their puppets, the Herodians and the Temple leadership. Jesus retreats further up the mountainside to escape their unwanted attentions; and when he hasn’t returned by evening, the disciples set out across the sea to return to the city of Capernaum. They encounter rough weather; and in the midst of battling the storm, they see a figure walking toward them across the sea. Naturally terrified by this apparition, they falter, and Jesus has to calm them by reassuring them of his identity. At that point, their courage returns and they “want” to take Jesus onboard; whereupon, the weather apparently calms and they reach their destination.

This reading provides a number of points for reflection upon modernity’s construction of work and economy. The first is the issue of scarcity. All modern economic theory proceeds from the basis that resources are finite and therefore scarce. As the reserves of a particular good are depleted, the price of that good will increase; this in turn will have the effect of lowering demand, thus enabling the reserves of that particular good to be preserved for a longer period of time.

Now, while this idea of scarcity has the benefit of reminding us of the need for sustainability – a reminder that is ironically forgotten in the drive for endless “economic growth” powered by consumption – it also contains several problems. The first is that the effect of scarcity in driving up prices tends to promote inequality: once something falls outside the capacity of the “average” person’s economic capacity, it falls into the realm of a “luxury” good, being reserved exclusively for those who can afford it. The second is the propensity of scarcity to promote both conflict and unsustainable consumption, especially with respect to natural resources: once resources like oil or water become scarce, individuals and communities may want to hoard them for their own benefit, as well as consume them at a rate that adversely effects future generations. A third problem involves what is known as “market failure”: that is, the failure of both governments and the private sector to foresee and develop alternatives to resources becoming scarce (usually as a result of the benefit which powerful vested interests derive from preserving the status quo).

Of course, the reason why scarcity is seen as important in economics is that it drives competition; and competition, it is argued, is the genesis for innovation and invention. In other words, scarcity is a good thing because it forces human societies to be creative and find new solutions to old problems in order to maintain their economic and political edge over their rivals. If there was no scarcity, there would be no need for innovation based on competition for scarce resources; and human society and culture would stagnate.

But today’s reading from John argues against this understanding of scarcity. Whereas economic theory depicts scarcity as normative in human existence, the Gospel says otherwise; rather than scarcity being the norm, abundance is what God wills for human existence. Of course, this abundance is not reducible to material terms, as though God were the ultimate provider of consumer goods. Rather, the abundance of which today’s passage speaks is, firstly, the extension of compassion and grace to all people as Children of God vested with the dignity of their creation in the likeness and image of God; and, secondly, the elimination of the distinctions and categories through which human beings justify and sanctify exclusion and marginalisation within human life. The crowd of 5,000 who are fed by Jesus are representative of humanity in all its diversity: rich and poor; able and disabled; adults and children; men and women; influential and voiceless. Yet all alike are fed without distinction to caste and status. The scarcity that economics declares not only to be normative but necessary is overturned and replaced by abundance for all.

The second point of reflection centres around the idea of consumption. Modern economic theory posits consumption as the driver of economic growth: when people consume (usually in the form of purchasing goods and services) the economy expands, jobs are created, and income is generated. The more consumers consume, the more the economy expands, the more benefits are created in the form of income that can be spent on new products and services. In other words, consumption is part of a virtuous circle that contributes to economic happiness. But as economics itself recognises with the notion of scarcity, finite resources – especially finite natural resources – precludes the idea of endless consumption. Moreover, consumption also produces waste, both in terms of the toxic by-products of manufacturing and energy supply, as well as the unused portion of products and their associated detritus that gets thoughtlessly disposed of by consumers.

In other words, consumption as this is understood by modern economics is also an inherently destructive process. But note in this reading how Jesus commands the left-over fragments of food to be gathered up “so that nothing may be lost”? This reference to food being “lost” is not some biblical anticipation of the modern notions of “recycling” and “re-using”. Rather, it is an inherent aspect of covenantal living, one that stretches deep into the roots of Israel’s relationship with God. This is best articulated by the injunction against landowners harvesting their wheat fields to the very edge of the field, or picking up any crops that fell to the ground while harvesting: such were to be left for the landless and the poor to harvest for their own use (Leviticus 19:9; 23:22; 24:19. Ruth 2: 1-17).

One can imagine the food fragments Jesus ordered to be gathered up being subsequently distributed to the poor, or those members of the crowd who had a long way to travel back to their homes; but this is not mere charity. Rather, this is a practical expression of the injunction in the Hebrew Scriptures about not harvesting to the edge of the fields; an injunction that understands consumption, not as being for “my” or “my family/tribe/community’s” sole benefit, but as an integral part of the distributive process. In other words, consumption – properly understood – is not a destructive process that produces waste, but a generative process that distributes resources to those who have none. The abundance of God does not just create or give; it provides for those who have no other provision. Our economic relationships are therefore required to be expressions of our covenantal relationships, mirroring the God who not only gives but who provides. Consumption that is reckless or wasteful or improvident, that is undertaken in pursuit of some imagined ideal of “economic growth” that allows no room for distribution, is mere gluttony.

The final point for reflection occurs in relation to the crowd’s and the disciples’ response to Jesus. The crowd want to turn Jesus into the instrument of their need, utilising his apparent miracle-working power to overthrow the established order and set up what they imagine might be a restored Kingdom of David. In all likelihood, their motivations arose out of a sincere desire to address injustice. But in seeking to manipulate Jesus as the means for fulfilling their desire, they equate the Kingdom of God with the politics of power. This is the temptation that faces all reformers, and all those who resist imperial power: the resistance, if successful, can turn into tyranny, especially if it has used coercive means to overcome evil. This is precisely why so many “freedom fighters” end up turning into dictators. Jesus recognises this danger and flees from it.

The disciples, by contrast, seem almost indifferent to Jesus: when he retreats up the mountain, they do not follow him, but wait by the Sea of Galilee; and as evening approaches and Jesus still hasn’t made an appearance, instead of looking for him, they get in their boats and head for home. Perhaps they thought Jesus was on one of the many retreats with which his ministry was punctured, and wished to be left alone. But it almost reads as though they take Jesus for granted; you can almost hear them thinking Meh.

Their indifference becomes something more focused when they encounter rough weather and have to make hard work of rowing toward the shore. Their focus turns to terror when they see Jesus approaching; but as soon as they realise who it is, they want very much for him to join them in their boat, anticipating, perhaps, the calming of the storm and the safe passage that will follow. The disciples’ approach to Jesus in this passage seems extremely utilitarian: handy to have when the chips are down, but otherwise not something that needs to be thought about too deeply or seriously.

Both the crowd and the disciples’ response illustrate the dangers of reducing faith to the status of a vehicle for the fulfilment of our own needs and desires. Both the crowd and the disciples “believe” in Jesus because they have seen what he can do; but their “belief” is geared toward getting what they want, whether political revolution or escape from danger. But faith in, and discipleship to, Christ call for something different: for a realignment of human life away from conventional understandings and motivations, toward a living out of the covenantal relationship to which God calls us. This includes all aspects of life, the economic as well as the personal and the societal. Economics is not merely the vehicle for the generation of wealth, the manufacture of goods, or the consumption of resources. It is necessarily one of the keystones of human inter-relationship; as such, it must reflect an understanding of human life that does not reduce it to the instrumental or the convenient.

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