Pentecost 11 (Proper 13/Ordinary 18): Year B

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:15

Today’s reading from Second Samuel is concerned with two key concepts: compartmentalisation and consequence. Following on from last week’s reading, in which David abuses his power to both commit adultery with Bathsheba and organise the killing of her husband Uriah (having failed to manipulate Uriah into sleeping with his wife so that her pregnancy by David could be put down to Uriah instead), this week’s reading follows the confrontation between David and the prophet Nathan in which the nature of David’s wrongdoing and its consequences are brought home to him.

But first, compartmentalisation. The prophet Nathan tells a story about two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man has a guest; but unwilling to sacrifice one of his own flock in order to provide the required hospitality, the rich man takes from the poor one the one little ewe lamb which he possess – a ewe lamb, moreover, who was like a member of the poor man’s family.

When David, hearing this story, is outraged on behalf of the poor man, Nathan turns David’s anger against him. Did he not do something similar to Uriah the Hittite, who was loyally serving in David’s army? Did he not steal Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, despite having many wives and concubines of his own? Did he not abuse his own power and advantage to organise Uriah’s death so that David’s subsequent drawing of Bathsheba into his own house might look legitimate – perhaps even an act of compassion? How, then, can he be outraged on behalf of the poor man in the story when he has behaved exactly like the rich man?

Confronted with the reality of his own wrongdoing, David doesn’t try to avoid his guilt, much less try to rationalise or explain away his behaviour. He has sinned before the LORD. Nathan makes very clear to David the consequences of his actions: because he has used intrigue and the abuse of power to obtain wrongful ends, the example he has established shall become endemic within his own house. This will be borne out by the intrigues and killings that eventually result in David’s son Absalom unsuccessfully rebelling against the throne; in the machinations that underlie Solomon’s rise to power; and in the quarrelling and divisions that eventually tear the kingdom into two.

The second consequence is more controversial. Nathan tells David that his son by Bathsheba, conceived through an act of adultery, will not survive. Is the text really suggesting that God would punish a helpless baby by killing it? We cannot deny what the text says; but taking the Bible seriously does not mean we have to take it literally. We can try and explain it away by saying that the theology of the times understood all things coming from the hand of God: the Spring rains that allowed crops to grow, as well as the diseases that carried off children by the score (see Job 1: 20-21 and 2: 9-10 for expressions of this theology). But this explanation will not really serve; afterall, there are multiple theologies woven through the Hebrew Scriptures, so the ancients’ view of God was by no means homogenous. How, then, are we to respond to this part of the text?

In just the same way that, in last week’s reading, Bathsheba’s ritual impurity because of her menstrual cycle was an emblematic prefiguring of David’s actual impurity through abuse of power, so the doom that comes upon this child is emblematic of the doom that will befall David’s house. The former is personal and direct; the latter is social and institutional. Either way, sin has consequences, both for ourselves and for those around us. Whether or not people at the time or subsequently believed that God really struck down David’s son is irrelevant: what is relevant is that even those who “get away with” wrongdoing cannot escape its consequences. Murder may or may not “out” as Chaucer declared; but its effects, even on the perpetrator, are inescapable.

In the world of economy and work, compartmentalisation is used to justify many abuses, or even becomes a mechanism allowing us to “unsee” what is before our very eyes. Destruction of the environment, exploitation and abuse of vulnerable workers, the dispossession of indigenous people, the trafficking of human labour – all these and more are justified on the grounds of “economic growth”, “providing employment”, “national security”, “shareholder return”, “company profitability”, “market confidence”, and a plethora of other bases. All of these excuses are made by powerful corporate interests and those who benefit from the status quo at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless. But they are also excuses that co-opt wider society into becoming participants in abuses: our shiny computers and other tech gadgets (such as the one on which this reflection is being written!) are built on the suffering of millions of exploited labourers.

But compartmentalisation is also an issue that effects the Church, as well as secular organisations ostensibly fighting for justice and equity. Such organisations “position” themselves as the voice of the voiceless; and, in the case of the Church, as embodying a Gospel that proclaims God’s universal and unconditional love for all. But if the Church and social justice groups criticise, for example, the exploitation of poor workers by multinational corporations, and yet themselves enact abusive workplace practices, how are they any different from David and his anger toward the rich man of Nathan’s story? The splitting off of “us” from “them”, the justification of “our privilege” on spurious grounds that sanitise and sanctify exploitation, reveal the hypocrisy at the core of the abuse of power.

And all of this has consequences. Whether it’s the widespread social disgust aroused by the Church’s failure to deal with the sexual abuse of children and others (never mind the impact of that abuse on the victims themselves!), or the increasing social dislocation and turmoil created by rising inequality and rapidly changing environmental cycles, the net effect of abuse is that it always rebounds on those who are its perpetrators, as well as creates destructive waves that impact society as a whole. Nathan’s story is no mere simplistic morality play; it goes to the heart of abuse as a social and institutional issue, and articulates precisely why modernity’s construction of work and economy must change.

Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is more than a confession of sin or a plea for mercy. It is an acknowledgement of the nature of wrongdoing and the expression of a genuine desire to return to covenantal existence.

The Psalm begins, not with an appeal for forgiveness, but with an appeal to God’s love. It is out of God’s extravagant love and mercy that forgiveness of sins proceeds, for love and mercy are the foundation of God’s covenantal relationship with humankind. Neither is this love the wishy-washy variety that forgives because it is the “right thing to do”; it is forgiveness that upholds a commitment to relationship, that is prepared to hold the sinner in the centre of covenantal grace for the sake of the sinner themselves.

The Psalm also acknowledges that true redemption is about transformation within – even transformation that comes from painful processes, such as the consequences of sin or difficult personal reflection. It is about the instilling of a “right spirit” which is not some unattainable perfection or saintliness, but an intentional orientation toward the covenantal ground to which God calls us. This is a ground that does not condemn us for our failures, but which allows us to hope for renewal and rebirth beyond our brokenness; we are never so alienated from God that we cannot have the possibility of new life.

The worlds of waged labour and economy are in desperate need of healing and restoration. The sin of alienation implicit in the technologizing of work has not only created the grounds for exploitation and abuse, but has pushed people – and the non-human ecology – to the brink of destruction in the relentless quest for “growth” driven by “consumption”. Our societies are less equal, less inclusive, more stressful, and more fractured than perhaps at any time since the ancient period.

But in order to do this, acknowledgement is required, not just of a “problem”, but of the nature of that problem: the very foundation of modernity in its constructions of work and economy. And beyond this acknowledgement comes the need, not just to change, but to recognise that change is possible. The refusal to recognise both the need for change, and that change is actually possible, reflect an unwillingness to give up power and privilege for the sake of relationship. Any transition will necessarily be exceedingly painful and will come at a cost – possibly a very high cost. But the prospect of new beginnings, new tomorrows means also the prospect for healing and redemption – for our broken societies, and the natural world of which they are a part.

Ephesians 4:1-16

In last week’s reading, Paul was urging the Ephesians to make God – and God’s gracious love – the ground and basis of their being. In this week’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul articulates what the loving graciousness might look like in the world of human relationships: humility, patience, gentleness, loving forbearance and peaceful unity. Nor are these mere “aspirational” statements, but in actual fact reflections of the unity of God in the Triune dimensions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But this unity is also multifaceted and multi-dimensional, expressing itself through the diversity of humankind that is part of the Church and wider human society. We are not all ordained to do the same work; but all our work is purposed and directed toward the same end. And this end is not reflective of the ends of convention or cultural expectation, but of the redemptive purpose expressed in Christ’s ministry and headship of the Church.

The modern construction of work and economy has both homogenised the human experience of “work” and bent it toward the purposes of the competitive, consumerist “economy”. In other words, waged labour has become the predominant mode of human work, either marginalising other conceptions of work or stripping them of their spiritual and existential value. Likewise, instead of “economy” being constructed in its original, theological sense – that is, oriented toward a network of relationships sustaining human dignity – it has been misconstrued in the direction of competing interests operating in a conflictual paradigm that opens the way to exploitation and abuse. Moreover, this does not allow for the flourishing of talents or diversity: what is classified as “work” or “gainful” employment has been vastly narrowed by not just the industrialisation and corporatisation of labour, but by its predominance.

Today’s reading from Ephesians is a reminder about the necessary directions to which the human experience of work and economy must be directed if they are to be truly fruitful and sustaining. It is also a reminder to Christians that their calling is to speak truth into modernity’s misconstruction of work and economy – and to embody the “economy of God” in its own life and witness.

John 6:24-35

Following on from last week’s reading in which Jesus has both fed the crowd of 5000 and calmed the fears of the disciples during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, today’s reading begins with the crowd catching up to Jesus and the disciples in the area around Capernaum. To their question of how he got to be on the other side of the sea, Jesus responds, not by answering their question, but by revealing their motives for following him: because he was able to satisfy their hunger. This is significant, because in the cultural context of the time, leaders and those with authority were expected to be able to provide for the community. This is part of why, in last week’s reading, the crowd wanted to make Jesus a king: he had fulfilled one of the basics requirements of leadership.

Jesus tells the crowd that instead of clinging to such expectations, they should instead work for the “food that endures for eternal life”; when the crowd enquires what might the “work of God” for this “eternal food” look like, Jesus responds that the “work” of God is belief in him, the One sent by God. To which the crowds demand a “sign” to demonstrate Jesus’ bona fides as the one sent from God – afterall, Moses performed the miracle of the manna in the desert. Jesus then instructs them in the truth: that it was not Moses who performed this miracle, but God. As the One sent from God, Jesus is the manna that does not satisfy for a day, but for eternity.

Modernity’s construction of work and economy posits material possession, resource consumption, and the acquisition of authority through monetary, political, and commercial influence as the chief ends of human life – or, at least, of a “worthwhile” or “successful” existence. These are the “breads” that feed momentarily, and which are oriented, not toward the Kingdom of God, but toward the satisfaction of venal needs. Human dignity and worth is measured by whether one works (ie: has waged labour), what kind of work one performs, how much money one makes, and how or whether one’s work can lead one into the circles of power and influence. We expect our politicians to enact policies which preference our community (or our particular self interest) over other communities (and self interests). Their “authority” and “legitimacy” (and their political survival) is measured by their capacity to “deliver”.

But this is not the leadership which the Church is called to deliver precisely because it is not the leadership which God supplies. God is not like the ultimate tribal chieftain, pouring down bounties on God’s faithful followers – after reserving a cut of the spoils. And God does not view the world of human reality as existing for the purpose of acquiring temporary treasures. Rather, God’s purpose in creation – in the invitation to covenantal relationship – is redemptive and salvific. Our lives are to be oriented, not toward building up stores of transient wealth, but toward investing in the wealth of eternal life. And this investment does not come in the form of a personal piety that we either privatise or which allows us to accommodate ourselves to the status quo; it calls us to be and embody the Kingdom of full human abundance which Christ proclaimed.

The Church has, at many points in its history, failed to live up to the commissioning implicit in today’s reading by placing itself at the centre of social and political power, or by using its wealth to leverage its position within human society.  Likewise, many dream today of restoring the Church to this kind of “authority” as part of their “mission strategies”. But these are realities and objectives that mould the Church in the world’s image by seeking to obtain “legitimacy” and “authority” on terms the world understands and recognises. This is hungering after the bread of the world in the guise of the leadership of the world. Christ calls us to something different: to the kind of transformative faith that orients human life to the eternal life to the eternal life which faith in Christ calls us.

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