On Succession and Civil War (Based on Proper 14, year B)

Sometimes leaders stay on too long.

They get tired.  They lose their sense of mission.  They remain because they’ve grown used to power and can’t imagine not having authority.  Some leave gracefully, like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; others hold on like Mubarak in Egypt.

Most stay too long.

Institutions get nervous during times of transition.  It’s one reason monarchies develop – business can continue smoothly. Even non-monarchies like Syria, North Korea, India and the US each have their peculiar political dynasties.  And the problem of succession is not merely experienced by nations, but by corporations, churches and other bodies that get work done.

There are good reasons to be anxious.  If succession doesn’t happen well, we run the risk of civil war.  In the midst of such trouble, it’s easy to forget the basic rules that keep the nation peaceful.   We look to the rule book to ensure peace.  In our political life, for example, we can disagree, but everyone has a right to vote (well, perhaps not these days).

In the reading last Sunday, David had ruled for nearly forty years; he’d been running the kingdom from the office, and although he remained enthusiastic and confident in his abilities, his soldiers were unimpressed.  David’s son Absalom wanted his own turn. He’d gathered support and was undermining his father.

Perhaps Absalom thought the throne should have been his; perhaps he thought his father was too disinterested, too old to rule effectively.  He knew he could do better.

But Absalom’s thick, long hair was caught in a tree, and as he hung, Joab, David’s advisor, disobeyed the command to keep Absalom alive.

Joab believed, perhaps, Absalom would not truly submit; that there would always be the risk of Absalom’s treason.  Perhaps Joab was jealous of Absalom.  Joab had worked for David’s favor; while Absalom held David in contempt but David still adored him.

The story does not have a clear moral – it lifts up for us to see how family love and political necessity create chaos.  We do not know if Absalom would have been a good king or not.  We only know that David also had a deep love that was stronger than his son’s betrayal.

In the day’s gospel, alluding to Torah, Jesus tells us he is the bread of life.  In the wilderness, generations had passed; the older generation that remembered Egypt as a secure home was being replaced by a new generation looking forward.   Remember there was conflict along the way; in part because of the differences in generations succeeding each other; and the temptation of ineffective Gods along the way.  But they were fed, and would come to the new abundant land.

The way we think of the bread of life is one way the church asks us to look at the threat of chaos and civil war.  Jesus is the son of the Father; who takes on a role as the obedient son – who survived his own death.  We eat the bread to represent ritually that even though we are individuals, who may be stubborn, proud and envious, we nonetheless share in this one participatory act of mutual honor and submission.  We trust that we need not be defined by our urge to kill each other; that we need not always fear being the loser in our daily work.

For around the table, as we eat the bread, scripture says there is enough for all.   The raised Jesus is meant  to free us from the  worry raised by the disappearance of strong leadership.  Instead, the reminder: when we learn we have enough, there will be enough for all.

It may be too much to hope for a world where we can all acknowledge our limits; that we can be free while accepting our common inheritance; and that liberation requires responsibility. But we elevate the bread and wine of life, if only to show the contrast, that we still have a choice:  Life or death; together we will survive.  Alone we will not.

Not as a nation.  Not as a world.

David and Bathsheba

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.