17 June 2007

Getting it Wrong

Our readings today were about two people who got things rather badly wrong - and one who got them right in the end.

We started with part of the story of King David and Bathsheba. Now, just to put that story in its context, you may remember that David happened to see Bathsheba bathing - he had just had a siesta on the roof of his palace, and got up to go for a potter and stretch, when he saw this beautiful young woman bathing, and fancied her rotten. So he sent to enquire who she was, and it turns out she was called Bathsheba, married to Uriah the Hittite, who is away with the army just now.

Well, David sends for her, and the story doesn't say whether she fancied him, too - power can be awfully attractive, apparently - or whether she was just too scared of him to say no, but anyway, net result is, she's pregnant and it's David's baby. So they send for Uriah, and try all sorts of subterfuges to get him to sleep with her but he says "No, I'm on active service, so much as I'd love to, I can't". The Israelites, you may recall, had all sorts of laws about being unclean and so on, and it would have thrown things badly out of whack for Uriah if he had.

So huge problem, because next time he's home it's going to be obvious what's happened. So David, probably a bit irritated that Uriah has also shown up his lack of self-control, even getting him drunk didn't work, makes sure that he's posted in the thick of battle, where he's sure to be killed. And sure enough he is.

Not exactly an edifying story, is it? As we heard in our reading, David does marry the girl, so their son is born in wedlock, which mattered in those days. But David isn't just anybody, he's King of the tribes of Israel, and you can't do that sort of thing, even if you're the King. Or perhaps especially not if you're the King!

So God sends Nathan the Prophet to go and tell David off, which he does with this rather charming story about the man with all the flocks he could wish for stealing the one ewe lamb that the poor man had.

There's a rather charming postscript to the story - God has decreed that David and Bathsheba mayn't keep the child, but it will die. And sure enough, it falls ill, and David spends the time face down on the floor, pleading with God, but then it dies. And the servants absolutely dread telling him, because if he's like this when the child is ill, what's he going to be like now it's dead? So they stand in the doorway going "You tell him - no, you tell him!" and eventually David realises what's up. And, to their astonishment, he goes and has a bath and gets dressed and sends for his breakfast, quite as if nothing had happened. And when they ask, he says, "Well, look, the child's gone now, nothing more I can do. While it was still here, there was a chance God might change his mind."

But later on, David and Bathsheba had another child together, and that turned out to be Solomon, arguably the greatest king of Israel.


I'll come back to David in a minute, but let's turn to the other story we read today about someone who got it wrong, and that was Simon the Pharisee. There are several versions of this story in the Gospels, and, putting them together we know that Simon lived in the village of Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived - some commentators have even suggested that Simon was Martha's husband, which is possible, but not explicitly stated anywhere. It's also possible that the woman who comes in with the alabaster jar of ointment is actually Mary - in John's gospel we're told that she did anoint Jesus' feet. On the other hand, that could have been two separate instances; we don't know and it isn't quite clear.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter, although it's fun to speculate. But the point is that Simon has asked Jesus to dinner, but he obviously thinks he's being terribly broad-minded doing so. It was a public dinner, probably held in the yard in front of the house, so everybody could see what Simon was doing. The public were rather expected to come and gawp, rather like we do at film stars going into premières and so on today. But, according to Jesus, Simon is really an appallingly bad host - he didn't offer Jesus any of the usual courtesies of the day. I wonder whether he even spoke to him during the meal, or whether he had sat him as far away as possible. "I might ask him to dinner, but that doesn't mean I have to be friends with him!"

And then this woman wanders in, this street woman. From the context, it's clear that she has lived a sinful life, probably as a prostitute. Although we don't know why she became one, probably not by her own choice. Sometimes, in that time and place, it was that or starve. But she had one possession that stood between her and utter destitution - her alabaster box of ointment. These were incredibly precious - you may remember that in most versions of the story, the disciples, and especially Judas, chunter about how she could have sold it and given the money to the poor, it would have been less of a waste. Luke doesn't mention that; what he does mention is that Simon gets impossibly uptight about all this, and wants to have the woman thrown out, but Jesus intervenes.

And first of all, he tells Simon a little story: Suppose there were two men, and one owed you a vast fortune, and the other owed just a couple of days' pay, and you let them both off, said it was a gift. Which one do you reckon would love you most? And Simon, quite rightly, suggests it would be the one who had owed the fortune. And Jesus then points out to him that her actions, which incidentally have more than made up for his, Simon's deficiencies as a host, show how much she has been forgiven, and tells the woman that she has been forgiven, and that her faith has saved her.

Which, of course, leads to chuntering about who on earth was Jesus to say that sort of thing..... poor man couldn't win, at times!


So what have these stories to say to us today? I do think there's a lot we can learn from them.

Even the great and the good can get it wrong. David got it spectacularly wrong. He's widely considered a superb king, a great leader, one of the ancestors of Jesus - yet he, like so many men, was quite capable of thinking with a part of his anatomy other than his brain, and then arranged a cover-up. Why am I reminded of a couple of 20th-century American presidents? Actually, it's the same sort of thing, isn't it - a great man in a position of power, immense sexual energy, which often goes with a drive for power, so I'm told, and attractive young women there for the asking. Kennedy got away with it, although I gather it was widely known about; Clinton, in a different era, did not. And nor did King David in his own day.

Simon also got it wrong. He really shouldn't have asked Jesus to dinner if he wasn't prepared to accept him for who he was. Holding him at arms' length, failing to offer him more than the most rudimentary hospitality, you wonder why he bothered. He might have wanted to show how broad-minded he was, inviting this itinerant preacher that none of the other Pharisees would dream of inviting. Or maybe he was curious about what Jesus had to say - but his curiosity didn't extend far enough to actually welcoming him, and certainly not to welcoming someone that Jesus wanted to see but he didn't. For Simon, allowing a street woman into his grounds was quite beyond the pale, totally not done!

It looks as though Simon missed the whole point of Jesus altogether. At that stage, Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the kind of person that was part of the kingdom - we know from the various collections of Jesus' teachings and stories that have come down to us what sort of a person that is. And basically, Simon wasn't it! He was judgmental, he put people down in the worst kind of way, he wasn't open to new ideas.... as for loving his enemies, well, I highly doubt he would have thought that proper behaviour for a good, upright Pharisee like himself!

Don't get me wrong; Simon was not a bad man. Nor was David. But, like all of us, they both got things wrong from time to time.

But look at the difference between them. David, when made to face up to exactly what he'd done, was aghast. That was so not how he saw himself - he couldn't really have done that, could he? Yes, he could, and he had. "I have sinned against the Lord!" he exclaims. It is thought that he wrote that wonderful penitential psalm, psalm 51, which includes such lovely lines as:

"For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

I've left out the odd verse here and there, but that's by and large it. "Restore to me the joy of your salvation". David, knowing he'd done wrong, could pray that.

Simon, I don't think, did accept that he was wrong. We don't hear what he replied to Jesus, but maybe he just said, "Yes, yes", but didn't let what Jesus said get to him. I hope that's not the case, but too often it happens. We don't really let God's word into us and change us, the way David did.

And the way the woman did. She knew she was all wrong. We don't know why she went wrong - perhaps it was her only option if she was to feed her babies. Perhaps someone like Simon, perhaps even Simon himself, had abused her and then cast her out into the street like so much litter. But she, too, repented, and demonstrated her repentance by giving Jesus her most precious possession, anointing him with very precious ointment, weeping over him.

Maybe she could have stopped her descent into prostitution by selling the ointment and its jar. We don't know. We do know, though, that she thought Jesus was worth all of it.


So what happens when we get it wrong? We do. All of us do, I know I do. But do we go into denial about it, like Simon? Or do we admit it, like David and like the woman, and thus open ourselves to forgiveness and healing and peace?

It's really hard to do. It's far too easy to be in denial, because that way we don't have to forgive ourselves. But it can be done. David managed it, and went on to become one of the greatest kings in history. And with God's help, we can, too.

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