Today’s Gospel story was the Feeding of the Five Thousand as presented in John’s Gospel. We will return to this story later this month when we read from Jesus’ so-called Bread of Life discourse – when Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. For today, I just want to note that the Feeding of the Five Thousand is recorded in all four Gospels. The versions are slightly different, according to the “agenda” of the Gospel writer. Compared with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John wanted to place special emphasis on the divinity of Jesus. He inserted a conversation in which Jesus asks Philip what they should do, making Philip look theologically a bit dim when all he can think about is the cost of
bread. Then at the end, the people say, “Truly, this is the prophet who has come into the world.” There’s also lots of symbolism around the number twelve – twelve disciples; twelve baskets of leftovers; twelve tribes of Israel.
I want to talk about today’s Old Testament Scripture, which follows on directly from last week when we read about how the beautiful Bathsheba had a #MeToo encounter with King David. It looks like a very contemporary story – just change the names to Harvey Weinstein and a Hollywood actress and it could have been in a recent newspaper. One day, David saw drop-dead gorgeous Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her home. Filled with lust and a sense of entitlement, he determined to have her, even though he already had a whole harem of wives and concubines. Bathsheba has no choice but to submit – he’s the King, her husband Uriah is away at war. She had no-one to protect her, so David had his way with her.
Then disaster strikes. Bathsheba gets pregnant. She couldn’t pretend that the child was Uriah’s because he was away with the army. So David fixed the problem. He arranged for Uriah to be put into the fiercest part of the battle, so that he would be killed. To Canadian eyes, it looks as if David arranged to get Uriah killed to avoid a scandal. Actually, the situation was much worse than this. In the Middle East, male members of the family carried out honour killings (and sometimes still do) of women who were accused of having stained the family’s honour. If David wanted Bathsheba, he had to get rid of Uriah, otherwise Uriah would kill her. That’s why David got Uriah placed in the fiercest part of the battle, knowing that he would be killed. It is almost as if he had murdered Uriah himself.
We picked up the story today after Bathsheba’s time of mourning for Uriah was over. It seems that David must have actually loved Bathsheba, because he married her. At least Bathsheba was more than just a starlet on the casting couch who was used then thrown away like a used tissue. Despite this, God was unimpressed by David’s behaviour. He sent the prophet Nathan to have a ‘little talk’ with David. Nathan didn’t confront David directly – David would probably have said that he was the King and he could do whatever he liked.
Instead, Nathan shamed David by telling a parable about a rich man who had plenty of sheep and a poor man who had just one lamb. The rich man refused to slaughter one of his sheep to offer hospitality to a traveller, but took the poor man’s only lamb instead. David was outraged at the injustice of the rich man’s actions, because he showed no pity for the man who was poor. He said, “That man should die, because he showed no pity.” Nathan pointed out the parallel with David’s conduct (he had many wives and concubines; Uriah just one wife).
Nathan went on to say that God had given David the whole kingdom, yet he had despised God both by taking Uriah’s wife and by having had Uriah killed. David recognized his shameful behaviour. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He acknowledged his sin and showed remorse. If he had loved
today, he might have said, “I made a bad decision.” It sounds a lot better than “I did wrong.” Bad decisions take the focus off the wrongdoer. They seem to float “out there” independently of ourselves. Nathan did not tell David that he made bad decisions when he raped Bathsheba and had Uriah killed. He made it clear that what David did was flat out wrong. David acknowledged that this was so. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He didn’t try to weasel out of it. Nathan said that he, David, would not die because he repented, but the son born to Bathsheba later fell ill and died.
As I thought about whether the story of David and Bathsheba represents a #MeToo moment from 3000 years ago, I concluded that it does not. God had the prophet Nathan confront King David for what he had done, but when we look at the story carefully, we realize that Nathan’s criticism was that David’s sins were greed and lack of compassion, but it was Uriah that Nathan and David had pity for, not Bathsheba. David repented for having taken Uriah’s only woman when he already had many wives and concubines, but his attitude towards women was little different than that of the Harvey Weinstein’s of today’s world. I’m a big shot, so I’m entitled to whatever I want. In the culture of the time, neither Nathan nor the writers of the books of Samuel seem to see anything untoward in David’s treatment of women as things to be used. By today’s standards, we criticize David just as much for his despicable treatment of Bathsheba. In the words of the hymn, “Time makes ancient good uncouth,” as 21st century Canadians, we find David’s behaviour to be inexcusable as well as uncouth.
The cynic might say that King David put a different twist on the Biblical injunction to love one’s neighbour, which had been written in the Book of Leviticus, long before the time of Jesus. After all, it seems that Bathsheba lived next door to one of David’s palaces! But David very clearly did not love that neighbour as he loved himself. The Biblical sense of that commandment is to have self-respect, and to extend that sense of respect to one’s neighbour. David’s behaviour was self-centred and egotistical. He showed neither self-respect, nor respect for either Bathsheba or her husband Uriah who – let’s not forget – was off fighting for king and country i.e., fighting on behalf of David.
One of my seminary professors said that we should always look to find God’s grace in a Biblical story. It isn’t easy to do so with the story of David and Bathsheba. It is a sordid and disgraceful story. David was all powerful, so Bathsheba couldn’t say no to him. This story shows the human failings of one of Israel’s “greats”.
But the element of grace is that David repented of his sin. Even though David acted so badly, God was still able to find value in him. For example, Bathsheba later had another son, Solomon, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem. Despite his moral lapse, we still credit David with writing sublime psalms; he remains the first and greatest King of Israel, a figure of such importance that a thousand years later, the Gospel writers were at pains to emphasize that Jesus was descended from his royal lineage.
The good news for us is that if God can make use of a seriously flawed person like King David, there is hope that God can make use of us too. We just have to hope that God will recognize the good in each of us, and not dwell on the bad.