2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13:1
In the winter of 1642, a tiny baby was born prematurely to his widowed mother in a rural Lincolnshire hamlet. When he was three, his mother remarried and left him the care of his grandmother. He grew up to be Isaac Newton, who laid the foundations much of modern science.
In August 1921, most people wrote off a politician struck down by polio, who was largely wheelchair bound. However he was elected governor of New York in 1929, and then president of the United States in 1932. Franklin D Roosevelt led the United States out of the Great Depression and through the Second World War. Even today, I wonder if a wheelchair bound politician would get very far?
The things that tonight’s readings make very clear is that God has a very baffling approach in terms of recruiting damaged and unreliable people to be his agents in the world. With persistent frequency, God seems to choose the most unlikely characters to work with him. Take King David, for example, surely the clearest biblical example of God’s strange recruiting policies, though some might say that the disciple Peter would give him stiff competition later on. It’s true that there are others in scripture who don’t come up with the necessary goods and faith at the time God might have hoped. David, however, is a past master of the art of failing to live up to God’s high calling for him, often because he lets his emotions rather than his head rule him.
Today’s story from 2 Samuel has the great Jewish king, who ruled a thousand years before the life of Jesus, making a spectacular fall from grace. To make matters worse, when he thinks he’s got away with it he walks into a divine representative who confronts him with his own failures and frailties in almost the only way he’d be prepared to accept: by luring David into judging his behaviour from his own mouth. The problem is that David has fallen in love with Bathsheba, beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his senior soldiers. After observing her bathing, he’s called her in to see him, seduced her, and she’s now pregnant. Despite David’s best efforts to cover his tracks, by enticing Uriah to return home to sleep with his wife while on campaign, the loyal soldier refuses to desert his post. Uriah insists he must maintain his purity during active service by sleeping alongside his troops.
David decides that, with Bathsheba increasingly unable to hide the baby she’s carrying, he has little choice but to arrange Uriah’s death. The brave soldier is put deliberately in harm’s way, in a pitched battle, and dies. After a period of mourning, Bathsheba marries David and gives birth to a son. In our reading the prophet Nathan rebukes David for his actions through telling him a story which entices the king to side with the victim, only to be told the unpleasant bully in the tale stands for none other than David himself.
How he has been brought low! As king of Israel, David has commanded its armies, subdued its enemies, negotiated its treaties, controlled its politics, and focussed its religious life in Jerusalem around his role as ruler. None of his enemies have mastered him but he’s been felled by his lust for another man’s wife. A chain of events follows from this story, starting with the death of Bathsheba’s baby son and leading to incest, murder, and rebellion within David’s family.
After his death, David’s faults and personal failings are forgotten, and he becomes the great King David of Jewish memory, idolised and idealized as the one who built the nation. That’s why it’s so significant for some contemporaries of Jesus that as a potential new national leader he stands in David’s line as well as sharing the same obscure but significant birthplace.
What the Hebrew Bible account doesn’t make clear is whether David’s wayward behaviour emerges from the pressures caused by answering God’s call to leadership, or whether he’s been flawed all along. It sounds as though one problem could be that he is not able to recognise and ‘own’ his desires. If asked how all this unravelling of his authority began, he might even have tried to blame Bathsheba for it, since she chose to take her bath in a place where she could be seen. That sort of excuse, of course, would be dangerously like the defence of some contemporary rape trial defendants, who claim their victims encouraged the crime by inviting familiarity through provocative behaviour or dress.
In the New Testament we read of another unlikely agent of God, also suspect in terms of personal morality, the woman who anoints Jesus. The other gospels put this story just before the last supper, but Luke’s gospel places it in the middle of Jesus’s Galilean ministry. It also adds the fact she was a sinner, and repeats this several times. Is this extra information there because the gospel writer wants to underline the way Jesus is prepared not only to relate to women but also unrespectable ones at that, as he shows people God’s love? Or is it an example of the tradition inserting something negative and belittling into its account of some female characters as a way of diminishing their overall significance? You pays your money and takes your choice.
Directly after this story of a ‘fallen woman’ who anoints Jesus and receives forgiveness, we find a list of his closest female followers. Three of them, Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, are mentioned but there are ‘many others’ who go unnamed. These unlikely companions have one thing in common: they owe much to the liberating love Jesus has shown them, releasing them from past pain both physical and mental. Like David and the woman who anointed Jesus, their backgrounds aren’t perfect either.
It can be argued that the women mentioned in Luke chapter 8 are more than cooks and waitresses, preparing meals and serving Jesus and his disciples at table as they would normally have done for their male relatives at home. These resourceful women either have private means or persuade others to give gifts of money or goods that keep Jesus and his ministry going. They are models of the new community of shared resources on which the Christian church will be founded.
In our own times, we know of religious and other leaders who’ve been accused of weaknesses in their personal and private lives like those mentioned in some of today’s readings. Sometimes this is a way for opponents to try diminishing someone’s authority. Martin Luther King, the black American civil rights campaigner and Baptist minister, faced accusations of adultery, both during his lifetime and after his assassination in 1968.
It’s interesting how we all make choices about the parts of people’s stories we choose to remember, those we forget, and those we re-write, either deliberately or without realising it. Seeing how this works isn’t an excuse for us to misbehave in our own relationships, just a recognition that our accounts of one another’s lives, and of our own, are always partial in both senses of the word.
Thankfully, God is both the ultimate equal opportunities employer, and an inveterate risk taker when it comes to choosing people to help advance God’s purposes. God keeps on investing in us and entrusting us with great tasks. What matters is not that we’re perfect, none of us is, but that we’re willing to follow Jesus and the example of self-giving love he lives out for us, both in our personal lives and our public service.