PROPER 14 / 10 PENTECOST — 9 August 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
2Sam 18:5-9,15,31-33 Ps 130 Eph 4:25-5:2 John 6:35,41-51
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”
I have commented before — I think it was to you last summer, but perhaps it was in another
parish — that one of the great opportunities of the Revised Common Lectionary, and particularly Track One thereof, is that we read great stories from the Hebrew Scriptures at the Sunday Eucharist, stories that in the past never quite fit in with the rest of the Sunday readings. (Well, they still don’t fit in, but we no longer care!) Of course we have always read them if we have some systematic way of reading through the Bible, such as the Divine Office (Morning and Evening Prayer), By the way, the Office Lectionary just this Friday and yesterday caught up with the David and Bathsheba story we read at the Eucharist on the last two Sundays; and for fun I got the old Gregory Peck-Susan Hayward movie from Netflix and watched it last night! Yeah, well… Very Hollywood. An interesting take on the story, though. An imaginative incorporation of some tales from elsewhere in the Books of Samuel. Somewhere there a Strict Rule that Hollywood can never do a story from the Bible straight.)
For the next two weeks the Office Lectionary will be working through the Absalom saga, of
which we get just a little piece today. Which is the downside of Track One of the lectionary. The Absalom story goes on for eight chapters (beginning with Chapter 13 of the Second Book of Samuel), and it is a rich, fascinating, and complex tale. I encourage you to go home today, or this week, asking yourself, “What was that Absalom business all about?” and take your Bibles and start in with 2nd Samuel 13. It’s a story that has inspired other stories — I think of the novel Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner, which I’m sure some of you have read and I suspect others of you have not read (not yet; that would include me!).
The Absalom saga is a story about how we manage to mess up our lives by a series of bad
decisions. And the fact that they may have been well-intentioned at the time really doesn’t help. The roots of it are actually a consequence of the Bathsheba story; you may recall last Sunday we heard the prophet Nathan chew David out about his murder of Uriah the Hittite, and he said, “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house.…Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.…” (In the movie the prophet Nathan was played by Raymond Massey, so you know this was serious business!) What goes around comes around, and it starts coming around when David’s son Amnon has the hots for his half-sister Tamar (his half-brother Absalom’s full sister). Well, the Hebrew text says he “loved” her, and that’s how it’s usually translated into English, but “had the hots for” seems to be more to the point, since it quickly becomes clear that “love” is not the issue. This is not a Sunday School Bible story, by the way. So if the kids would like to color on their bulletins for a while now, that might be a good idea. (We might also note that the folks who talk a lot about “the Biblical doctrine of marriage” might want to explain themselves a little more clearly.)
Anyway, Amnon manages to get Tamar up to his room, where he rapes her, and then in disgust throws her out. (The biblical scholar Phyllis Tickle includes this passage as one of the Bible’s “Texts of Terror.” Yes.) When King David finds out about this, he is very angry, but he — does nothing. Amnon is his firstborn and heir-apparent, the “crown prince.” And after all, David is hardly on the moral high ground, as you will recall from the last couple of weeks. Still: Absalom is not only enraged at his brother for having violated his sister, he is also deeply angry with his father for not doing anything about it. Absalom bides his time, but in due course he engineers Amnon’s murder, and then flees into exile. The story goes on; ultimately Absalom comes back to Jerusalem, but he is already plotting rebellion to dethrone and replace his father David. And by the time we get to today’s part of the story, Absalom is leading an open revolution; he declares himself king at Hebron (where David had originally become king in Saul’s place before his conquest of Jerusalem). David flees to the Jordan valley, and Absalom occupies Jerusalem. (There is a whole series of intriguing little subplots in connection with all this. This is not a simple story!)
Well, now, comes the great climactic battle. The royal army of David — apparently mostly men of Judah, David’s own tribe — defeat Absalom’s insurgents, apparently mostly Israelites from the northern tribes. (The tension between the northern tribes of Israel and the southern tribe of Judah goes back long before the division of the kingdom following the death of King Solomon.) Absalom himself gets his hair caught in a tree. We learned earlier [14:26] that Absalom had a magnificent head of hair, which he cut annually, and the hair trimmings weighed five pounds; so let this be a lesson for you boys: Get a haircut! (Not a problem for some of us.) But I digress. Absalom gets his hair caught in the branches of an oak tree as he rides under it (Israel in those days was heavily forested, before the loggers and the sheepherders over the centuries turned it into a desert; there’s an environmental lesson in that; but I digress again). Today’s reading leaves out a few verses of plot here; it’s actually David’s general and all-purpose hit-man Joab who first plunges three javelins into Absalom’s heart, before his flunkies finish him off. We might note that Joab has a long history of
being David’s hired gun: it was he who killed King Saul’s general Abner after the death of Saul; it was he who set up the death of Uriah the Hittite at David’s order. Joab was the guy whom David used to keep his own hands clean of blood. Now after the death of Absalom David can mourn the death of his son, in a scene which is well known, and deeply touching, the deep grief of a father who has lost his son — a grief which is, alas, not an unknown experience in any age. But we should also realize that David’s grief should not be taken completely at face value. In the chapter after today’s reading, Joab challenges David about this — he reminds me of Dr. Phil: “David, what were you thinking? We all just risked our lives to save your throne, and you’re whining about that faithless brat of a boy. Get over it!”
I said at the beginning that the Absalom saga is a story about how we manage to mess up our
lives by a series of bad decisions. And the fact that they may have been well-intentioned at the time really doesn’t help. I think this is the appeal of David especially among the figures of Jewish history recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. A great leader, a hero, most certainly, but a very real and deeply flawed human being. Intensely devoted to the Lord God of Israel, and yet over and over he keeps finding ways to mess up — for which he must pay very high and painful prices. Just like us? Well, I hope that we are not just like him. But, alas, we too manage to mess up our lives by bad decisions, if usually, I hope, in less catastrophic ways. But in any case, I hope we understand that God is with us — God is with us even when we abandon him. God will not save us from our own consequences, as he did not save David. But God does not leave us. God stays with us. God weeps for us. God loves us.