The Prophet Nathan rebukes King David
Trinity 10 2018
Last Sunday over coffee someone suggested that they had been looking forward to something juicy about David and Bathsheba. So I shall turn to that today, as that story reaches its conclusion and denouement. For the salaciousness of David voyeuristically spying a pretty girl bathing, having his way with her, marrying her and then disposing of the other man involved, after, if you remember, trying to cover up her pregnancy by getting her husband Uriah to, shall we say act in a way such that there would be no suspicion surrounding her pregnancy - all this is not a story we might confine to the ancient realms of the Old Testament. Because if you have been watching television, or reading the newspaper at all, it’s all very pertinent and modern - ancient and modern, as the hymn book might have it.
I watched a period drama film ten days ago called ‘Love and Friendship’. Broadly speaking, the main female character manipulates everyone, especially the men, who falling in and out of love with her, she basically controls. At the end of the film, she ends up marrying the man she had intended for her daughter, and the man she fancied ends up marrying her daughter. But this woman isn’t actually in love with either of them, but with another man, with whom she is having an affair and gets pregnant. The film ends with her married to the man whom her daughter has rejected, but with him being delighted to be told the day after their wedding that she’s going to have a baby.
It is of course exactly what David had planned for Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. But Uriah is super loyal and faithful to his fellow troops, so refuses to visit his wife when David would have him cover his tracks, and this costs Uriah his life, and David his moral compass.
And then last Sunday night I saw Lucy Worsley’s programme about the wives of Henry VIII - the episode which was about the second three. You know who they are: Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Catherine Howard is interesting and relevant, because she was related to Anne Boleyn, which is a bit ironic given that both were beheaded for adultery trumped up as treason. Henry married Catherine Howard on the very same day he had Thomas Cromwell executed, and Cromwell’s lands were given to her. According to Lucy Worsley, she hadn’t really wanted to marry him and had had relationships with other men. But if you are told to marry the King, you do. Lucy Worsley says that Catherine Howard was basically an abused teenage girl, of whom others had already taken advantage, and that in a more modern, rather than ancient age, she would have been considered as a victim of abuse and manipulation, sexual, emotional and physical, rather than being beheaded. Poignantly, when questioned by Archbishop Cranmer, about her relationships, she felt duty and morally-bound to tell the truth. The Archbishop did not have much sympathy it seems but passed on her confessions. He did not incidentally, protect her abusers as such - their heads ended up on spikes on London Bridge.
There are some modern themes here aren’t there? Sexual abuse, churchmen, abuse of power, the ostracisation of the victim, and the abuse by the rich of the poor. Was Bathsheba a victim of King David? Did she want him? Did she have any choice, really? Bathsheba and Catherine Howard seem to have a lot in common. David’s lust, briefly mentioned in the famous Leonard Cohen song, ‘Hallelujah’ - “you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”, is not just about his weakness, but his abuse of power, which in grand Old Testament fashion, backfired on everyone as the child died a few days after childbirth. Obviously childbirth was dangerous there and then - and we might remember that both Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr - third and sixth wives of Henry VIII – both died soon after giving birth. Nevertheless, the culturally acceptable seeing of the death of a newborn as judgement is hard to swallow, but in in its context, reflects the level of guilt - and necessary punishment, that David is led to by Nathan. Because he repents, and writes the rather wonderful Psalm 51, he is spared, but his baby must die. This view persists, certainly into Jesus’ time, you might remember in the story of the man who is born blind in John’s gospel, the locals ask, ‘what sin did his parents commit that he was born blind’? Judgement is meted out on one’s children, and David and Bathsheba’s first child is a classic case. They do go on to have a second child – Solomon - who becomes a great King, but who, himself, incidentally, has hundreds of wives.
And there are still plenty of people today who believe that if you commit sin, you will be judged in your own lifetime. Sickness, suffering, death, disadvantage - these are often seen in terms of judgement. The psychology is complex, but I for one do it believe it. Guilt, repentance and judgement are real, but so are forgiveness and healing. And forgiveness and healing are what mark out Christianity. Which is why making amends when we can, is a rather good idea. It is not only right, but wise to have regrets, say sorry and try to put right what we - and others have done to harm others. But sometimes this also means being able to forgive ourselves and truly own the healing and forgiveness that is available. Sometimes the damage is too great and the lines are very blurred. So in accepting the grace of God, we must be kind to ourselves too. Sometimes forgiving others is easier than forgiving ourselves – that is, owning the forgiveness of God. And sometimes the inability to forgive ourselves or others – for understandable reasons - is soul destroying – which is how and why so many lives are destroyed by crime.
In the church, television, football, swimming, film - you don’t need me to name the realms where abuse scandals have been making headlines. Allegations ignored, covered up, disbelieved; victims sent packing, silenced. Some killed themselves, others had vocation twisted or destroyed, others are permanently damaged. Judgment - justice - is needed – sought – and in many cases achieved. But it may not be enough – forgiveness is needed too – because only forgiveness can heal the damage - and there surely is so much damage out there.
When we read of David eying up Bathsheba and hauling her into his sexualised coterie, we are not so far away from Jimmy Saville and Bishop Ball. And it is the coterie that is interesting, and where this ancient story has a modern edge. For surrounding these characters ancient and modern are others who for whatever reasons - desire, fear, status, whatever, protect the abuser. David had people who knew what was going on, but who went to Uriah to get him to go home, and then made sure he got killed – and there were others in an inner circle who kept stum. They may also have salved his conscience by reassuring him that what he had done was ok, because he was the king and could act in that way. Substitute Bishop or TV star or Film Director in this scenario in recent years. It boils down to: if you have power you have the power to use it, and that is OK. Which is why it so interesting that not only did Jesus reject the idea that sins are visited on the children, he also surrendered his own power, and there are no examples in the New Testament of him exercising any, except when doing something inherently good, such as healing.
But the hero of all this, is Nathan: he knows what is right. He knows that what David has done is unacceptable, but he also knows there is forgiveness. He calls him on it, cleverly using a parable to reveal and extract the truth. Good old Nathan, we need more people like him. And the new Safeguarding approaches that everyone now has to adhere to, make someone like Nathan the kind of person who gets listened to, rather than told to go back to his prayers and shut up.
How are the mighty fallen! And how are the fallen raised up by Jesus Christ! For we are all prone to naughtiness, bad behaviour, weakness, frailty, selfishness, status anxiety, pride, gluttony, lust, envy, jealousy and gluttony, wrath and sloth. There are more than seven deadly sins, and most of us succumb to most of them at some time. Which means we are all prisoners to sin.
St Paul has some help for us in his letter to the Ephesians:
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
This is the way forward, to goodness, hard as it may seem, feel and be. And the only way through it all is in Jesus Christ, who shunned power and sought to reconcile sinners, to each other and to God himself. And St Paul could have been speaking of our hero Nathan when he wrote:
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”.
Scandals included, this is the standard by which we are all judged, and forgiven, and the calling of Christ to the world: that we might build up one another in love.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 05/08/18