(8/8): 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130 • 1 Kings 19:4-8 and Psalm 34:1-8 • Ephesians 4:25-5:2 • John 6:35, 41-51
This week's readings cover a lot of territory. From David's grief over his son Absalom, killed by David's army as his son attempted a takeover; to Elijah, exhausted and hoping to die; to Ephesians, providing detailed advice on how to conduct oneself in this vale of tears; the setup is a noteworthy compilation on the challenges of living. As if on cue, Jesus opens the gospel reading with this startling claim: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (v. 35).
On the surface, what Jesus says here is patently false. Mammals get hungry - else we'd all starve! And yet Jesus chose the language of hunger and thirst, to describe what he was offering. Although the language is often thought of metaphorically – that is, no more spiritual hunger – I wonder whether something else is implied. I wonder whether very earthly struggles are exactly what he meant. Moving on down the passage, an even more fulsome expression occurs: eternal life. Anyone who believes has eternal life: not only in some future time, but also right now (v. 47).
When seeking to contemplate eternal life, one can easily be led to consider some sort of ethereal, blissful 'mental nirvana,' as a friend put it to me. But I don't think that scripture bears that up entirely. Rather, it is the choice to look reality square in the face and live into the present earthly moment, finding not necessarily happiness, but certainly, truth.
The story of David and Absalom is an example of an epic failure to face reality. Today's scripture gives us David weeping over his dead son. What's the back story? Well, to begin somewhere, let's start with David's taking (and raping? the Bible is unclear about whether the sex was consensual) of Bathsheba, another man's wife, and seeing that the other man – his comrade on the battlefield – was killed. This is the great king David, killer of Goliath, writer of the 23rd psalm! It reminds me of a Fred Rogers line, explaining to children that the very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes. No wonder David's sons were confused!
The acting out that follows is Biblical. One of David's sons, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar – full sister of Absalom. Absalom avenges her rape, having Amnon killed and fleeing to another country, where his mother's family was from. David begins to miss Absalom, and Joab (also a family member, David's sister's child) finds a way to get him to come back. But then, both Joab and David continue the cutoff, avoiding any contact with him. Finally, Absalom has a servant set fire to Joab's barley field, to get his attention. Although he does gain an audience with King David, he continues to be shut out of the royal business and takes to sitting at the gate where his good judgement is useful to the people. Eventually, war breaks out between father and son, with the grandfather of Bathsheba a key player on Absalom's side.
David had multiple opportunities to change this sequence of events. Scripture reports that David was upset about the rape of Tamar, but would do nothing because he loved Amnon, his firstborn (2 Samuel 13:21). More than that though – much more than that – was the chance he had earlier in life, to teach his sons to do differently than he had done with Bathsheba. Teaching his sons, of course, would have involved more than explaining sexual mores to them. For David, it would have meant being a different person himself, respecting others rather than using them to his own ends. But David lacked any interest in changing himself.
David's emotional immaturity shows itself again, in his bringing Absalom back to town and then ignoring him for two more years. How childish! He's stuck in his narrow world, unable to consider other views beside his own. And when it turned out that Absalom was a good judge of people, David was unable to use him as a resource, utterly destroying the chance to build a dynasty that would include this son. All along the way, he had missed opportunities.
Opportunities – the bread of heaven, if you will – are found in the mundane, today and every day. These chances, though, or as the prayer book calls it, the time for amendment of life, don't last forever. Today's story ends on a tragic note, with David weeping for his son. It's important not to skip over this too quickly, in David's story and our own.
Morning: What are my regrets? Where are the opportunities to take a new path, going forward?
Evening: What gets in the way of growing myself up? What am I interested in changing?
Psalm 130:1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.