There’s a story in 2 Samuel where King David is sitting in his palace and is visited by the prophet Nathan. Nathan greets the king and begins telling about a situation, which David believes to be a current court case that the prophet is bringing before him to hear what his judgment might be. Here’s what Nathan says: There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing – except for one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He tended it, and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to eat his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his lap. It was like a daughter to him. Well, there was a traveler who came to the rich man, needing hospitality, but the rich man didn’t want to take one of his own flock or herd to feed this wayfarer; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the person who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)
David’s response is exactly the kind that Nathan was anticipating. The king becomes furious, or in the literal Hebrew way of saying it, his nostrils burn hot. He declares that this man deserves to die, and pay back four times what the lamb was worth, because he showed no pity.
After this tirade, the prophet Nathan breaks out the punch line. Speaking directly to the king, he says, “YOU are that man.”
On a typical day, this may not have been such a zinger. A king like David had probably become accustomed to the critique of various prophets of his day – urging economic fairness, condemning injustice, always keeping the king’s feet to the fire to see that he carried out laws that protected the weak and held the powerful accountable. But this was not a typical time for David. Just before this encounter, after sending his army out to war, he had been lounging around on the roof of his house, spotted a beautiful woman bathing, and ordered her brought to the palace so he could sleep with her. Bathsheba became pregnant. In order to cover himself, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who had been fighting for the king, brought back home on furlough so he could hopefully *spend some time* with his wife so it will appear that the baby is his own. But Uriah wanted to stay in solidarity with the men on the battlefield and sleeps alone. So David goes another step and sends a letter to his army commander Joab to place Uriah in a position where there is heavy fighting and to make sure that he doesn’t make it out alive. Uriah is killed, David receives the news, waits for Bathsheba to go through the traditional seven days of mourning for the loss of her husband, and then takes her as his own wife, pleased with how things have worked out for him.
The way these stories are told in 2 Samuel, we are presented with these two scenes right alongside each other. King David is pleased that he has gotten away with murder, and taken the innocent man’s wife as his own….David is outraged that a powerful man would take as his own the much loved lamb of a man much poorer than himself. There is an intentional incongruity going on that David can’t yet see that we are supposed to see. It’s not that David can’t see injustice. Apparently, he sees perfectly clear when gazing at the situations around him. What others are doing. It’s just that, in this case, he can’t see injustice in himself. His vision is severely blinded by an inattention to his own reality.
Today’s Psalm and gospel reading work with this incongruity, this disconnect. They seek to remove the barrier that we often construct between what we look for outside of ourselves, and what we look for in ourselves. They challenge our tendency to get caught up in double standards, to neglect the truth that is within us, whether that truth be ugly or beautiful. And the gospel text offers that the cross is a central metaphor for bringing together the truth of the inner and the outer, uniting them in a way that breaks through our blindness and helps us to see more clearly.
Psalm 51 is a Psalm of penitence, a prayer of confession. It begins by saying, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love: according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression.” Of note is the heading that appears before these words. “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It’s not certain when the final form of this Psalm was composed, but the editors of the Psalter want the reader to be aware that in our minds it should be linked with David’s response to Nathan’s parable, his shocking realization that he is the one in Nathan’s story that caused his nostrils to burn. The Psalm is an intense confession of brokenness and the desire for wholeness. We can picture that much of the righteous energy that was felt in David against the wrong that he saw in the wealthy man of the parable has now been focused on himself. He is engaged in soul work. One of the lines that stood out to me in reading it this week was v. 6, “You desire truth in the inward being.” This is what is going on here. The poet is not hiding from himself, but painfully looking, probing, uncovering whatever it is he might find in his own soul. Even as this is happening, there is an acknowledgement that it is happening in the light of the steadfast love and abundant mercy of God.
This kind of soul work, the inward journey, is something that I’ve heard talked about over the last number of years from the Islamic tradition. Since 9/11 most of us in the West have come to associate Muslim jihad with the holy war that militant radicals have declared against the West and secularism. But various Muslim leaders have spoken against this, reminding us, and reminding fellow Muslims, that the meaning of jihad is the struggle against evil, and that the place that this primarily happens is in one’s own soul. There is a saying by the prophet Mohammed that goes, “The best jihad (struggle) is by the one who strives against his own self for Allah, the Mighty and Majestic.” There was also an occasion when the prophet Mohammed was coming back from a battle when he said, “We return from the lesser jihad, to the greater jihad,” referring to the struggle to overcome the harmful forces within one’s own life. (http://www.religioustolerance.org/isl_jihad.htm) This notion of paying attention to the inward journey, and making connections between the inner and the outer, is something that is a common thread throughout different religious paths.
These last couple years there has been an interesting movement on college campuses (mostly non-church related schools, I believe) by some who are trying to do some creative work around what might happen if we are honest with ourselves and with the traditions that we represent. It involves the creation of a reverse confession booth. The idea is that a group sets up a booth in the middle of campus that looks like a traditional confession booth, only instead of inviting people to come and confess their sins, they invite people to come and hear them confess the sins of the church. If a passerby were to enter into the reverse confession booth, they could hear a person confessing that the church has been too narrow-minded throughout its history, that it has not been fair to women, that it has too often condoned the evils of war and slavery and that it has not treated the poor the way Jesus taught. From what I’ve read, the idea of the reverse confession booth has had mixed results. Some groups have not been able to get many people to be curious enough to even enter the booth, while others have been welcomed and had the effect of changing people’s attitudes toward the church. It’s an experiment about what might happen when we are honest about who we are and the stories that we carry with us.
In John’s gospel, Jesus makes a statement that the Psalmist would have surely welcomed, and that might cause us to re-evaluate how we think about our struggle with being caught up in harmful thoughts and actions. He says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31) It’s an odd statement, something that should catch our attention, especially in light of the two thousand years that have followed it in which it appears that whatever ruler of this world Jesus was referring to still seems to have quite a grip on the course of history. When Jesus said “Now,” he must have meant some “now” in the distant future, a time yet to be determined. “Now,” as in “not now.” The oddness continues in the statement from Jesus that follows that would seems to indicate that Jesus was indeed referring to Now-Now. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” after which John adds the commentary that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
In John, Jesus is about the business of redefining the human perception of God and bringing us into communion with this creative Spirit of the cosmos. Humanity is blinded to the truth about itself and the truth about God. Jesus lives the truth, and teaches that we “will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.” When Jesus says, “now is the judgment of this world,” we may have images of judgment that involves condemnation. When Jesus says that he will be lifted up and draw all people to himself, we may have images of a glorious exaltation, where we are supposed to be dazzled by splendor. But the story that Jesus tells with his life is a very different one. Jesus does “judge the world”, and he is lifted up, but he does this through going to the cross, lifted up for all the world to see.
It’s a process similar to the one that Nathan the prophet brought to David. Rather than condemn David, Nathan shows him a picture of the truth that David was unable to see before, and David has the seed of truth within him that recognizes the truth when he sees it. And it draws him toward the loving kindness of God. One way of interpreting Jesus’ going to the cross is that Jesus death becomes a metaphor for what we were unable to see before. Jesus externalizes and makes visible in his body what was before unseen. He becomes a parable. Our hidden violence and neglect of justice and inattention to what is good are lifted up right in front of our eyes. Similar to Nathan’s parable it is held up to us like a mirror, revealing the shocking punch line that we are caught up in systems and attitudes and actions that lead to the harm of innocents.
If we recognize ourselves in that story, and recognize that this is not told as a story of condemnation, but a story of reconciliation, then we are drawn into something that takes us beyond where we were before, beyond the incongruities of not knowing ourselves or God. We’re drawn to God through Jesus not out of compulsion and force or fear, but out of a recognition that what we are looking at is true. The cross is true. It both reveals our own violence, even as it nonviolently welcomes us into a communion based on forgiveness and a renewed Spirit.
It’s something that Jesus compares to the process of being cracked open, and undergoing death ourselves. Speaking about himself, but also speaking about the process of coming into this new way of being, Jesus says, “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
This is the journey with Jesus to the cross. Allowing God to crack us open, and discovering, ultimately, not something horrible and ugly, but beneath that, further in, deeper within, something as holy as a seed, that grows and bears much fruit.
I want to close by sharing a reflection that Father John Foley has written on the growth of this seed. Here is part of what he says:
“A tiny grain ensconces itself within the earth. It tucks itself into complete darkness, but fearlessly, because its tough, safe shell is home. The seed knows it belongs there. In quiet. In growth.
The shell-shelter turns tight and encroaching and painful. The growing seed finds that its protector is opposing it, holding it back. Crushing it. Only one answer. As if planned from all eternity, the husky shell cracks right open. Wait, I need you, the seed shouts! Moisture trickles in, along with bits of dank, cold soil. Anything and everything can now march right into the heart of what was a quiet, pure place.
The seed goes to pieces. These pieces cope somehow, crazily extending their new, thin arm outward so it can slither through the shell’s cracks. It dares into the rough, cold mud. How foolish and shaming. Stay where safety is, you fool!
The transforming little self takes on an unexpected new life, a new home, but now in the slippery soil. Eking upwards, slowly and cautiously, it makes its way.
Such a journey. Now there are hard clods to press through, and pebbles aplenty. The higher soil gradually dries up and stops yielding to the growth. The top crust of ground forbids any more movement: an ultimate, intractable and stupefying barrier.
Give up, all voices say.
Except one, from within. Push. Push, it whispers. Find a weak spot. Push hard! The young sprout locates just a thinnest fracture in the tough skin. With certainty that might have been scratched directly onto its heart, the vine-to-be discovers it was made for what lay ahead, not for the darkness and blindness behind.
Light! Warmth! Tiny arms squirm out of new stems and they reach out for the sun’s astonishing light. They stretch and yawn in the wafting breezes of Spring.” http://liturgy.slu.edu/5LentB032909/reflections_foley.html
The spiritual life can be described as the rentless pursuit of that which is true. It is the quest to tell the truth about ourselves. And it is filled with the gift of discovering the truth about God, that welcomes us, even as we are mercifully judged and cracked open to embark on a journey of struggle and growth.