Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 1, 2021
Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a
The thing that David had done displeased the Lord. David coveted another man’s wife; raped her; and plotted and succeeded in having her husband, Uriah, killed. As we learned last week, what David did to Bathsheba has been too often rationalized, scapegoated, and romanticized. The harm that David did has often been softened to protect his reputation and his status as a biblical hero. But there is no softening God’s judgment in this text. God was displeased and sent the prophet Nathan to speak that truth to power.
It is dangerous to speak truth to power, to confront with judgment those whose power and authority are manifestly known and affirmed in every way. It is perhaps the reason Nathan speaks to King David in a parable. Nathan tells the parable of a rich man who had everything, very many flocks and herds, and a poor man, with nothing but a little lamb that he loved, nurtured, and cherished. When the rich man has a visitor to whom he wishes to show hospitality, rather than take a lamb from his own flock, he takes the poor man’s lamb. Because he had the power, the rich man displayed cruelty, coercion, and covetousness toward a weaker, poorer man. Like any good parable, Nathan’s story evoked an immediate response from David. How quickly David recognized the injustice. How quickly he was to pronounce judgment against the rich man for his cruelty. How quickly David understood the need for repair and restoration for the harm done. David’s response reveals that, despite his own cruelty, coercion, and covetousness, he knows what injustice looks like. He knew what a lack of compassion could lead to.
In his visceral anger, David declared that the man who did this deserved to die. The man who did this must make restitution. Nathan told David, “You are the man!” Even a king cannot hope to assume that God’s favor of power and authority gives him a pass on moral responsibility and accountability. God made a covenant with David to make him a nation. David had every advantage: untold material abundance, God’s anointing to lead God’s people, a grand home and many wives. And God was pleased to bless David with even more. Yet, clouded by fear and lust and drunk on unquestioned, nearly unlimited power, David violates the very commandments that made up the terms of covenant relationship with God . . . David covets; David commits adultery; David kills. God’s judgment is clear and unrelenting. The sword of cruelty, coercion, and covetousness that David wielded against Bathsheba and Uriah will be wielded against him. David sowed in deceit and violence and will reap it in his own family. There is no escape from what has been done. If there is a kernel of hope in the whole matter, it is that David does not deny his evil nor plead his innocence nor revise history to clear his name. David repents, admitting that “I have sinned against the Lord.”
A colleague of mine reminded me that modern readers tend to soften David’s repentance. We can say the words, “I have sinned,” but sometimes we don’t bother to name the sin. Why dwell on the ugly details? Some readers and preachers keep it undefined. David knows what his sin was. He repents of coveting another man’s wife; of coercing and violating her; of plotting and killing her husband. It will not do to avert our eyes.
An encounter like this between Nathan and David is rare in our own time. Some would say it’s too judgmental. Others wonder if it would do any good. Even if we are courageous enough to speak truth to power, it is not easy to declare: “You are the one.” And we live in a time when people who have done wrong find it hard to repent, to say without denials, pleas of innocence, or revisions of the story, “I have sinned.” It is even more difficult for a nation to do. Every day, prophets, survivors, historians, and descendants of the oppressed, the enslaved, or the murdered say to us repeatedly, “You are the one.” They come speaking truth to the powers that be about historic injustice, generational trauma, and ongoing violence and oppression. They remind those with overwhelming power, advantage, and privilege that there is too much avoiding of accountability for historic wrongs and responsibility for repair, too much rationalizing stubborn poverty and inequality, too much feigning ignorance and innocence about the ways the pursuit of wealth and hoarding of opportunity lead to oppression.
Much of the division, vitriol, and polarization roiling our nation today stems from a refusal to admit that moral vision and moral leadership have been too often clouded by fear and lust and the insatiable will to power. We are unable to hear the word of the prophet and the judgment of God that we are the ones. We are unable to admit that we have sinned.
Over the last few months, there has been a major new fault-line in the culture wars over critical race theory. Not critical race theory the theoretical framework for scholarly legal and sociological inquiry into the role of race, racism, and power in the legal/constitutional foundations of the liberal order. Rather, the forces who have created this flashpoint are arguing about critical race theory as a container for all manner of teachings on everything from Black history to slavery and the Civil War to antiracism. And when you explore to see what it is exactly people want to put an end to, what we see is a resistance to hearing about the shadow side of our exceptional nation. We see a resistance to being reminded about the ways this country has not only failed to live up to its ideals, but also how our country and our forebears actively and intentionally participated in the cruel acts of oppression against populations of difference. We have a hard time hearing the prophetic proclamation about the swords of genocide, enslavement, segregation, and discrimination our nation has historically wielded.
The good news is that in all God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, because of God’s covenant loyalty and solidarity with an imperfect creation, we have the capacity to choose and do justice. By the grace of God, there is always an opportunity for repentance: real repentance, in which we confront our history in all of its beauty and innovation and its cruelty and oppression; real repentance in which we name the sins of the nation, sometimes over and over so that the call to repair and restitution are always in the offing. I’m not talking about a narrow, anemic repentance offered only to get us to stop talking about the failures of the past or stop remembering how we failed in our moral vision. Repentance does not mean that we get a pass on repairing the harm. Repentance does not mean we revise history to make us look more innocent than we are. I’m talking about repentance that generates a desire to make things right and love beyond our self-interest, repentance that calls us to solidarity with the most vulnerable.
Yes, God will forgive David, and God forgives us. That does not change our call to moral responsibility and accountability for individual and national sins of commission and omission. What is required of us who have been so blessed with great fortune and abundance is to reclaim a moral vision that repairs the harm done and restores God’s good creation. If we ever hope to reclaim moral vision and be guided by moral leadership that check the inevitable will to power, we need a people, a church, leaders, and a nation that can be open to the prophetic charge that we are guilty and have the humility to admit that we have sinned. Then God will delight in our words and deeds of faithfulness and truly heal our land. May it be so.