[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]
Two Readings: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2
2 Samuel 18:5 The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. 9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on….15 And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him….31 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ 32 The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’33 The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’
Ephesians 4: 25 So then, putting away falsehood let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
A Very Quick Summary
The first reading picks up with the story of King David’s ruination following his murder of Uriah the Hittite. His household has since become one of intrigue and violence. Now his favorite son, Absalom, has conspired to murder him and claim the throne as his own. David is fortunate to escape Jerusalem. In today’s text the King’s army has regrouped and gone to battle. They quickly rout Absalom’s forces. In the ensuing chaos, Absalom dies an ignoble death. On the hearing the news, the old King is devastated. The closing verse is one of deep pathos: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The Ephesians text is a list of commands on how to live in community, beginning with a list of prohibitions and building to the heights of transcendence, so that finally we are bid to be “imitators of God.”
Commentary: A Few Ideas for Preaching
These are two very different texts, which might suggest selecting one and ignoring the other. I found them to be two sides of the coin, each complimenting the other.
The Samuel story is gripping whether read independently or as part of a larger cycle, and while royal families are a long way from our experience, the family dynamics are very close. Any good pastor may be tempted to focus on the good news that Scripture includes the eloquent pathos of a parent. One may be even be tempted to link David’s pathos with the reading from Psalm 130 to offer a comforting note.
One problem with such a therapeutic move is that Samuel speaks of God as working in and through the events to deliver “ruin on Absalom.” This is not simply God with us. It is God against us–whenever we treat our “kingdom” as if it was ours and ours alone. Both David and Absalom acted as if their people, the Kingdom of Israel, were their own plaything.
What about us? What drives our politics? To what extent do we see our town, county, state, or nation as something we share with all members of that society? Do we have a sense of the common good or has politics simply become a way to protect me and mine? We might call this approach a politics of resentment, which of course has a long history (think Nietzsche). Here we find Absalom resentfully grasping after his father’s power. For his part, David seems to invite resentment, with his neglect of responsibility.
Illustrations of both resentful grasping and complacency abound. The Chick-fil-A debate is but the latest reminder of how politics can divide us—causing us to dismiss an entire class of persons. Depending on one’s context, one might also discuss immigrants or felons. Increasingly, however, the culture wars look to break along generational lines. This has to do with different ideas about sexuality, diversity, religion, but it also has to do with the distribution of resources. Student debt, for example, has become a crisis for many young people and graying adults find themselves sandwiched between children and aging parents. The temptation—in all these cases—is to think of the problems as someone else’s (David) or to grasp after power that is not rightfully ours (Absalom).
Samuel reminds us that the personal is political. The same power dynamics are at play in all our communities, be they our family, workplace, or the church (The Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Carol Howard Merritt). This can be seen in the many prohibitions of Ephesians. The body of Christ is at the same time a human community that threatens to divide due to lies, anger, stealing, sloth, slander…Indeed, all our communities are so threatened, including, of course, the human community. Hence, the command to forgive; to forgive is to imitate God, but to forgive is also to live in community.
This may strike us as a politics of weakness, akin to passive aggressiveness or resentment. Politics, we are told, is nothing but the pursuit of dominating power. The book of Samuel reminds us that this is often the case, with tragic results. Ephesians reminds us of a better way, a way marred but also marked by forgiveness. This is the way of Christ and the way of community, the path to overcome resentment and complacency.
Might this be possible for those “kingdoms” beyond the church, even our national community? It is a long way from the fear and loathing of recent days. We are the political children of wedge issues in a time of war and of scandals by those who pose as moral crusaders. Is it any surprise that we are deeply suspicious of institutions? Our democracy often seems dominated by wealth and power. So, nothing is guaranteed.
But isn’t that the point in a way. Ephesians tells us that God, in Christ, risks, sacrifices, forgives all. To do so is to imitate God—not by claiming dominating power, but by something as radically simple as forgiving. Reinhold Niebuhr would be quick to remind us that forgiveness was not a winning new political program. At the same time, he also recognized that forgiveness was not alien to justice, that the pursuit of justice could be bruising, and that without forgiveness, without mercy, community could not be maintained. The odds are long, but in our better moments we disciples have not let that deter us. The pantheon of saints includes the likes of Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, but it also includes stories like those that will be told this Sunday, stories of ordinary people who imitated God in their own little kingdom. May it be so with us as well.
Dave True is Managing Editor of There is Power in Blog and an editor of the journal Political Theology. He is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA, the home of John Brown as he planned his raid on Harpers Ferry. In addition to recent articles for publications such as Politico, Christian Science Monitor, and Religion Dispatches, he has also authored a booklet titled The Church and Politics for the curriculum series Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding.