Absalom is dead. The Kingdom is again secure and, yet, David pours out his grief. This is the anguished cry of a father who has lost his son. Absalom was known as David’s third son with Maachah, daughter of Talmai, King of Gershur. According to lore, he was David’s most beloved son. But surely he also sings out of guilt at the role he played in Absalom’s death. When he arranged the murder of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, he consoled Joab, his partner in the crime, by saying that “the sword devours now one and now another”. Those words came back to haunt him when the prophet Nathan announced the consequence of David’s taking of Bathsheba: “the sword shall never depart from your house”. Nathan’s words have come painfully true, and David has borne ongoing responsibility for them.
David served as a kind of accomplice when his son Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Even after the rape he did nothing to punish his son. Absalom seethed at this injustice. Eventually he set a trap and killed Amnon. Then he fled, and David refused to see him until Joab and a wise woman from Tekoa worked a kind of reconciliation. Shortly after this moment of reconciliation, though, Absalom started positioning himself to supplant David as king. He won the favor of the people, ascended to the throne, and then continued his war against his father, raping his father’s concubines in full public view. David’s beloved son had turned against him.
David’s guilt comes from his role in these larger processes of violence. And yet, he did beg for a gentler handling of Absalom. What would it mean to “deal gently” with the young man? Would it mean to capture him alive? To let him go? To kill him quickly and painlessly? David’s words are open-ended, and Joab does not necessarily misinterpret them when he leads a gang of men in executing Absalom. David has a history of speaking in a code that only Joab can understand. When David wants Bathsheba’s husband killed, he sends a cryptic note to Joab. Joab knows what to do.
The story of David and Absalom (like many stories) can be looked upon as a kind of mirror to society. As this story shows, rivalry often drives humans to destroy one another, even those to which they are related, and we often bring others down with us. In fact, this family argument turned into an out and out slaughter between armies. Usually our grief and guilt linger just under the surface, festering and unnamed. Acknowledging this grief and guilt is difficult, because its exposure threatens so much of how we understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Once again, David’s power had been threatened and once again he chose to deal with it in a violent and murderous way.
The image of Absalom hanging “between heaven and earth” is interesting. Walter Brueggemann sees it as a depiction of a sort of liminal status: “Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead.” (Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel, 319) It is the story of us all. We live suspended between brokenness and wholeness, between sinfulness and the very image of God in which we were created, between who we are and who we are meant to be. But, in the midst of it all, is the God who both judges us and saves us. And it’s a good reminder that there are no absolute victories in this world. We are all winners and all losers. We are children of God but children with limitations. Maybe loss reminds us of our deep need for God, of our deep need for true redemption and restoration.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What do you think of David’s show of grief over Absalom? What did guilt have to do with that?
- What does this say about human nature and about how we treat each other?
- How does this speak to our win-lose culture? Is there a positive side to failure?
- How does this passage speak to redemption and hope?
NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 4: 25-5:2
The verses leading up to this passage, which are not part of the lectionary, calls the Ephesian converts to discard their old nature and don a new one. Beginning with the part that we read this week, the author of the epistle insists that we need to speak truth because we actually are all part of one another. Not speaking truth to each other is the same as not speaking the truth to ourselves, and vice versa. Throughout the passage, the author sets up contrasts: avoid destructive behaviors and do edifying ones. Discard spiritual clutter. To imitate God, only one thing is needful: kenotic love, the love that sacrifices for the good of others.
In all honesty, this passage contains exhortations that resemble moral prescriptions that are present throughout the world’s religions and cultures. But if we read it as merely a “morality check” or a sappy vision of all of us singing “Kum ba yah”, we have missed the point. This is not just a vision of good behavior. Rather, the author wants the Ephesians to make the connection between this new life in Christ and these new behaviors. This is deeper. It is about being rather than doing. Essentially, we are called to BE something different now. No longer can we dismiss our shortcomings as “only human”. Being fully human, becoming Christ-like, means entering that love of humanity itself, a love that exists in the midst of our diversity and even in the midst of our disagreements. That is the way we show our love for God. Ephesians immerses us in truthfulness and Truth. Truthfulness is necessary for pure love in Christ.
Notice that the writer doesn’t say “don’t get angry” but, rather not to sin when one is angry. In other words, don’t let it get away from you. Anger has its place. It can effect change or improvement. It can effect justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Perhaps it gives us the reminder to deal with our anger in a loving, but truthful, way and not let it get away from us. The passage does not call for us to BE God, to be perfect; the passage calls for us to imitate God, to BE the image of God that is revealed for each of us. Maybe even conflict somehow reveals that for us. We just can’t let it change us into something that we’re not meant to be.
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What does this passage say to you about truthfulness and truth?
- What about anger? Is there such a thing as “righteous anger”?
- What does this have to do with discarding the old nature (or even our old views)?
- What does it mean for you to imitate God?
GOSPEL: John 6: 35, 41-51
This week’s reading begins with the final verse from last week’s reading: “I am the bread of life…” The emphasis through John’s Gospel is essentially on eternal life, but this is not merely living forever, but, rather living in connection, in the household of God the eternal. It is about sharing in God’s life. While much of John’s Gospel tends to almost sound anti-Semitic, it reflects on the relationship with God and the shedding of one’s old life. (And to be honest, this should not be read as “The Jews”; rather this was a particular group in a particular time. It would be no different than someone referring to a fundamentalist right wing notion of Christianity as “The Christians”.)
The idea of the Gospel was that everyone inherits eternal life, this sharing in God’s life. Sticking to the old rules, sticking to the old boundaries will not get us there. It is more about newness than about wrongness. It is about transcendence. Jesus challenges the people to let go of wanting a God who can give them what they need and to create space for something more. He urges them to let go of the image of God that they have created. He invites them to take on his values as the bread of life. If prayer is only focused on needs, there will be no space to be drawn to God.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells of how she came across a Hindu family in India that had not eaten for days. She took them a small amount of rice. She was very surprised at what happened when she did so. Very quickly the mother of the family had divided the rice into two halves. Then she took half of it to the family next door, which happened to be a Muslim family. Mother Teresa asked, “How could you have any left over? There are many of you.” The woman simply replied. “But they have not eaten for days either!” “That” says Mother, “takes greatness. Her greatness consisted in her ability to transcend her own need, a greatness that is often found in the most extraordinary places.”
In a sermon on this text, Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens says this:
The way we view the world can limit our horizons or expand them to eternity. The crowd that surrounded Jesus in our Gospel lesson in John became angry at what they perceived as arrogance, if not blasphemy, on his part. How dare he call himself the bread of life? The way they saw him–wasn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Was he not the same one I used to have to run home when it was supper time? You know, the one who was so smart. Wasn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? How can he satisfy us? Do you remember that time he got lost in Jerusalem? How is he making such a claim? After all, he is one of us…
If they had seen more than the carpenter’s son, they might have heard the depth of the good news, but when we limit our world to what we know or have experienced, we can miss the vastness of God’s grace. Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied. (Rev. Wiley Stevens, “Living in Love”, August 10, 2003, available at http://day1.org/503-living_in_love, accessed 8 August, 2012)
But, when you think about it, bread is pretty basic, pretty ordinary. Maybe that’s why Jesus used it. After all, all it takes is a little flour, a little salt, a little water, and a little yeast. It’s just ordinary. (Although, a buttery cinnamon swirl never hurt anyone, right?) Every culture has bread in some form. People have been baking bread for 6,000 years. That’s the point. There’s nothing out of this world about it. It’s here. Flour, salt, water, and yeast—all ordinary offerings of the earth—vegetation, sea, water, and fungal microorganisms. Nothing is too big or too small for God. Eternal life is not something that is “out there” for us when we get to the end of what we know. It is here, right under our noses, the very ordinary offerings of life made sacred by the Presence of God. Here, now…right now…no waiting, no wondering, just something that requires that we step out of where we are.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- Once again, what does the term “I am the Bread of Life” mean for you?
- What is the dfference between a “needs-based” faith and a “God-centered” faith?
- How does our view of “eternal life” change or affect our understanding of God?
- What stands in the way of our own transcendence, of our own seeking God?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We must love them both, those whose opinions we share, and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it. (Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274)
Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. “Good” is the movement in the direction of home, “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Martin Buber, 1878-1965)
At the age of ninety-three, the cellist Pablo Casals explained how, for the past eighty years, he had started each day in the same manner. He went to the piano and he played two preludes and fugues of Bach: ‘It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning. . . . It is rediscovery of the world in which I have a joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.” (Pablo Casals)
Only this: That I may never hunger for that which is not your bread. Amen.
(Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, 118.)