Friday, January 29, 2010

Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned.

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Reading 1
2 Samuel 11:1-4a, 5-10a, 13-17
At the turn of the year, when kings go out on campaign,
David sent out Joab along with his officers
and the army of Israel,
and they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.
David, however, remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David rose from his siesta
and strolled about on the roof of the palace.
From the roof he saw a woman bathing,
who was very beautiful.
David had inquiries made about the woman and was told,
“She is Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam,
and wife of Joab’s armor bearer Uriah the Hittite.”
Then David sent messengers and took her.
When she came to him, he had relations with her.
She then returned to her house.
But the woman had conceived,
and sent the information to David, “I am with child.”
David therefore sent a message to Joab,
“Send me Uriah the Hittite.”
So Joab sent Uriah to David.
When he came, David questioned him about Joab,
the soldiers, and how the war was going,
and Uriah answered that all was well.
David then said to Uriah,
“Go down to your house and bathe your feet.”
Uriah left the palace,
and a portion was sent out after him from the king’s table.
But Uriah slept at the entrance of the royal palace
with the other officers of his lord, and did not go down
to his own house.
David was told that Uriah had not gone home.
On the day following, David summoned him,
and he ate and drank with David, who made him drunk.
But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his bed
among his lord’s servants,
and did not go down to his home.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab
which he sent by Uriah.
In it he directed:
“Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce.
Then pull back and leave him to be struck down dead.”
So while Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah
to a place where he knew the defenders were strong.
When the men of the city made a sortie against Joab,
some officers of David’s army fell,
and among them Uriah the Hittite died.

Although David is unquestionably one of the outstanding characters of the Old Testament and a key figure in salvation history leading to the appearance of Jesus as Messiah, King and Savior, one must admire the honesty with which David’s weaknesses are described. It is difficult to think of any other Old Testament leader who is given such warts-and-all treatment (although some of the patriarchs come pretty close!). But it is what makes David such an attractive personality. It is very easy to identify with him.

And, in fact, it is through the very weakness of David – as in the case of Paul – that God’s power and wisdom are revealed.

The story begins by telling us that David had sent his army out under Joab. They attacked their enemies, the Ammonites, and laid siege to Rabbah, the Ammonite capital. It would now be about 10 years since David established himself in Jerusalem. It was also the time of year "when kings go out on campaign", directly after the grain harvest in April or May. However, while David’s army was out in the field fighting the nation’s battles, David decided to stay at home.

One afternoon as he walked on the flat roof of his palace, after his afternoon rest, he caught sight of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the armor-bearer of Joab, David’s leading general, bathing. He found her very beautiful. On making enquiries about her identity he was told that she was Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam. Later in 2 Samuel there is mention of an Eliam, who was a member of David’s personal bodyguard and a son of his adviser, Ahithophel. Bathsheba was a Hittite. The Hittites were a people from Asia Minor but the term was used of non-Semitic people living in Palestine. (Her not being an Israelite further increases the seriousness of what is going to happen between her and the king.)

Filled with desire for her, David sent for her to be brought to his house, had sexual relations with her and, as she soon told him, made her pregnant. They both knew that, according to the law, they could be condemned to death for their act. That was David’s first sin: lust followed by adultery. However, there is no indication that Bathsheba was an unwilling partner in the affair.
The comment that she was “just purified after her monthly period” is significant. She had just become ceremonially clean after the seven-day period of monthly impurity following menstruation. This makes it clear that she could not have been pregnant by her own husband when David took her. The child was unquestionably David’s.

In letting David know that she was pregnant, she left the next step up to him. The law prescribed the death penalty for both of them but then, of course, he was the king.

Now comes David’s second serious sin. He tried to cover up what he had done. (Was this due to a sensitive awareness of wrongdoing or just to keep himself free from the application of the Law?) He summoned Uriah from the battlefield back to Jerusalem on the pretext of finding out how the fighting was going on. Uriah reported that the fighting was going very well.

David then, in an apparent show of deep consideration, urged Uriah to go down to his house and relax for a while. What he does not say specifically is what is most important, and well understood by Uriah. Clearly, he hoped that Uriah would also sleep with his wife.

The king also sent a portion from the king’s table. David wanted Uriah and Bathsheba to have a really enjoyable evening together with more implications of what that would mean.
The next two verses in the original text are omitted in our reading. In them, Uriah, who clearly understands all that David is hinting at, asks how he could go home, eat with his wife and have sexual relations with her, when Joab and the army and even the ark of the Lord are out in the battlefields. It was also a religious obligation for soldiers in war to practice continence. He refuses point blank. David’s actions are looking even worse than ever. Even the Lord is out in the battlefield while David is at home indulging in behavior for which he should be deprived of his life. David’s plan had failed miserably.

But David had not yet given up. He persuaded Uriah to stay over at least for another day. On the following day, Uriah was again invited to share David’s table. There was a lot of wine and David managed to get Uriah drunk, obviously hoping that, in that condition, he would fall into his wife’s bed. But, instead of going home as expected, Uriah slept with the servants in the king’s palace. Failure of Plan B.

David now played his last and most terrible card. He sent Uriah back to the battlefield and told Joab to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. At the critical moment, the soldiers were to be pulled back, leaving Uriah exposed to the enemy. This plan worked and Uriah was killed. Having failed to make it look as if Uriah was the father of Bathsheba’s child, he got rid of Uriah altogether and could now enter a quick marriage with Bathsheba. It is difficult to think of a more reprehensible way of behaving.

David is guilty of adultery, deception and finally murder. It is a sad record for a man who was chosen by God and anointed three times to be king and leader of God’s people and to be the founder of a dynasty that would never end. It is another example of how good can emerge from the most evil actions. For David is the direct ancestor of Jesus, the Son of God. Bathsheba will soon be the mother of Solomon from whom the rest of the Davidic line would continue. Hence she is also an ancestor of Jesus.

Before we condemn David, we need first, to read the rest of the story and then to look at our own lives. We could recall Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." In our time, especially, we seem to be so quick to condemn people’s wrongdoings, especially public figures. We use them as scapegoats to cover our own shortcomings.

Did God condemn David for what he did? Let us wait and see as the story unfolds.

+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 51

Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
I have done such evil in your sight
that you are just in your sentence,
blameless when you condemn.
True, I was born guilty,
a sinner, even as my mother conceived me.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness;
the bones you have crushed shall rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins,
and blot out all my guilt.
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
+++ +++ +++ +++

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”

He said,
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up
and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

Jesus was now becoming well known over a wide area. There was much speculation as to who he was (a major theme of Mark's gospel). Some were suggesting that he was John the Baptist (who had by this time been executed) come to life again, or that he was the prophet Elijah, who was expected to return just before the coming of the Messiah, or that he was a prophet in his own right, "like the prophets we used to have". We know, of course, that all those speculations were wrong. The answer will emerge very soon.

King Herod, steeped in superstition and full of fear and guilt was convinced that Jesus was a re-incarnation of John the Baptist whom he had beheaded. We then get the story as to how this happened.

Herod Antipas, also known as Herod the Tetrarch, was the son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. When the older Herod died his kingdom was divided among his three surviving sons. Archelaus received half of the territory; Herod Antipas became ruler of Galilee and Perea, while Philip was the ruler of the northern territory on the east side of the Jordan. The title ‘Tetrarch’ indicates that he was ruler of one quarter of the whole territory.

It is clear that Herod had great respect for John as he would also have for Jesus later on. The problem arose because of John had denounced Herod’s taking the wife of his half-brother Herod Boethus, as his wife. This was in clear violation of Jewish law. The historian Josephus also says that Herod feared that John, so popular with the people, might instigate a riot against him.
It was this woman, Herodias, who now wanted to be rid of John but could not do so because of Herod's respect for John. Herod had gone as far as arresting John but even when John was in prison, Herod loved to listen to him even though he was puzzled by John’s preaching.

Herodias saw her opportunity when Herod threw a party for his court to celebrate his birthday. She knew her husband's weaknesses. Herodias's daughter was brought in to dance and utterly captivated Herod. Deep in his cups, he made a rash promise. He would give her anything, even half of the territory he governed. Under the prompting of the mother, the girl makes the gruesome request for John's head on a dish.

Herod was aghast but because of his oath and the presence of his guests, he dared not renege on his promise. John was beheaded and the head given to the mother. John's disciples then take the body and give it a decent burial.

We might notice some similarities between this story and the passion of Jesus:
Both Herod and Pilate recognized in John and Jesus respectively people of obvious goodness of life, wisdom and integrity. The hatred of Herodias for John parallels the hatred of the Jewish leaders for Jesus – both called for execution by the ruler (Herod in one case, Pilate in the other). After the deaths of John and Jesus, disciples asked and received permission for a decent burial.
John is the precursor of Jesus not only in announcing the coming of Jesus but also in giving his life for the integrity of his beliefs and in bringing God's message to the people.

We are called to do the same. To prepare the way for Jesus and his message must become an integral part of every Christian’s life. Without our cooperation, without our going ahead of Jesus, his message will not be heard.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

'At the turn of the year, when kings go out on campaign,
David sent out Joab ...'

This phrase reminded me of the line from Tennyson's poem 'In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.' There is something almost humorous about it (a young king's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of war) or scientific, like someone observing behaviour in the animal kingdom. The irony is that, right from the beginning, Joab is the king figure - because he goes out on campaign. David does not. Joab is loyal to God, sees himself as a servant and dies like a betrayed king.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

In Old Testament times, it was the custom for kings to lead their armies into battle against their enemies. But there are exceptions. Saul led the Israelites into battle against the Philistines, but it was the young shepherd boy David who slew Goliath, and after the death of Saul, it was David, not Jonathan, who succeeded to the throne of Israel.

There is, in face, irony in today's first reading, even deeper irony than Sarah suggests. David has chosen not to lead his troops against the Ammonites, but sent his general, Joab, to wage the battle. Why? Because the King chose to stay at the palace, dallying with Bathsheba, the wife of Joab's armor bearer, Uriah. The plot thickens when Bathsheba sents a message to the King, "I am with child."

David tries three times to "correct his problem" by summoning Uriah from the battlefield and report to him. Three times he encourages Uriah to go home and "spend some time" with Bathsheba. Three times Uriah refuses, and spends the three nights in the barracks with the troops.

The final solution to David's dilemma is order Joab to place Uriah at the front of the troops, and when the enemy attack, to pull back and leave Uriah alone, so that he will be struck dead.

David has certainly not conducted himself as a worthy servant of the LORD in this matter. Tomorrow, we we see how the LORD deals with him.