Over the last several weeks we’ve been discussing the David story in Samuel. A king, a bit impetuous, handsome, a celebrity. There’s illicit sex, pointless violence, hard-fought redemption. It is a story that still resonates.
In the Hebrew bible, the heroes make mistakes; they break the rules; they ignore tradition; even the anointed are punished and the righteous are wrong.
David’s seduction of Bathsheba and murder of her husband, if anything, demonstrates that being divinely approved does not insulate one from doing wrong. David, so inebriated by his own power, succumbing to his immediate whims, is blind to the violence and misery he causes. Instead of examining himself, he believes that only other men are capable of evil. After being a soldier for so long, it was always the other country.
Nathan – his prophet – tells him a parable, effectively holding up a mirror, shocking him out of his narcissism; warning him of the consequences. David is shocked by what he sees.
The theologian James Alison notes that religion can build a fortress from which we judge others and protect ourselves; or it can be a source of inward reflection and self-understanding. It can teach us to judge others; or it can be a way of changing our own behavior. David was king, chosen by the Israelite God who broke the code of law, believing he had every right to.
But then he is challenged by the prophet, who embodies the conscience. “You are the man!”
A journalist once reflected that the most pious individuals are most at risk to cut moral corners. The morally rigorous justify their severity towards others, but keeping their own shortcomings in private. Those who believe that they speak the Word of God are often those who have the most to hide.
And yet, if we are willing to reflect inward, to see in ourselves our bare humanity, we will find an opening for the transcendent to break in, offer enough clarity to understand who we are, and grant us enough resilience to handle the vicissitudes of our life with confidence. It is thus only with humility and great trepidation may we judge the moral consciences of others, and make the mistake that we are different than our fellow human beings.