Proper 8B

June 22, 2015

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 5:21-43

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    2 Samuel 1:1,17 - 27

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    You can see why the Revised Common Lectionary wants you to jump from verse 1 to verse 17! There is an act of violence here in the skipped-over portion that tempts a Scripture reader to end the line “This is the Word of the Lord” in something of an interrogative mood: “The Word of the Lord???? Thanks be to God?”

    In the part of the story we’re supposed to turn a blind eye to, David rewards a man’s honesty by killing him dead on the spot. A hapless Ameklite had obeyed the dying King Saul’s order to do him in before his approaching enemies had the chance to do so. “King Saul told me to kill him so I did” the man reported to David. (Scholars can sort out the discontinuity of this story with 1 Samuel 31.)

    Literally torn up with grief over the death of both Saul and David’s best friend, Jonathan, David and company immediately begin to mourn. But the mourning goes on only so long before David asks the man how it was he thought it was acceptable to slay Yahweh’s “messiah,” his “anointed one”? David then orders the hapless man slain, and his compatriots swiftly comply.

    But in verse 16 David says a curious thing. He speaks to the now-dead soldier and says “Your blood is on your own head because you said ‘I killed Yahweh’s messiah.’”

    That’s curious because, of course, this man had said no such thing. Not literally anyway. He didn’t know he had killed any messianic figure, just a dying king who ordered him to finish him off. He clearly took no pleasure in the act and was even careful to bring back the royal crown to David (and, as already noted, was honest enough to tell David exactly what had taken place). He probably thought he’d be rewarded. Not quite. So following the man’s execution, David puts words in the dead man’s mouth as a way to make it clear that the punishment had fit the crime: raise your hand against the Lord’s messiah and you’ll suffer for it.

    For his part David then goes on to sing a song of lament over Saul and Jonathan that was so lyric and so lofty and so laudatory of the dead king that you’d think Saul had been David’s BFF or something. Of course, the long and tortured history of Saul’s relationship to the one Saul perceived to be his upstart rival was anything but friendly or cordial. More than once Saul had tried to turn David into a wall sconce by trying to pin David to the wall with his spear. David had spent long and miserable stretches of time getting away from Saul, living life on the lam. Once David had a golden opportunity to dispatch with Saul himself but spared him (maybe realizing in his own mind that he, too, could not raise his hand against Yahweh’s messiah).

    But all of that bad blood and sordid personal history disappear once Saul is dead. Suddenly David lauds him as though Saul had been the best thing to happen to Israel since manna in the wilderness. Well, what’s a little hagiography among friends, right? The fact of the matter was that despite his dismal track record and how relatively quickly even God had given up on Saul, the man had been Israel’s first king, he had been a significant figure, and now he was dead. So a proper song of lament was in order for the fallen leader of God’s chosen people.

    But let’s not too quickly leave behind the scandal of this chapter. A man who knew not what he did was executed, and David justifies the execution by crediting to the dead man words he had neither said nor whose exact meaning or import he probably could have understood in the first place. Maybe David was justified in doing this. Probably he was. But years hence when David wants to build Yahweh a temple but is told not to on account of his long war-record and violent acts, is it just possible that this is one of those acts that God had in mind?

    Maybe.

    The fact will remain, however, that on this earth the ones who get designated as God’s “messiahs,” as the “anointed ones” of God’s own choosing, will often have a hard time. Violence and threats of violence will often be in the vicinity of the messiah, all the way down history’s twisting corridors to the day when God’s final Messiah will arrive only once again to have sinful people raise their hands against him and kill him.

    Except that on that occasion, the people who knew not what they were doing were forgiven, not slain. The Pharisees and Roman officials and thugs and soldiers—each of whom could have in essence been credited with as much as saying “I killed Yahweh’s Messiah” just as David alleged against the soldier in 2 Samuel 1—don’t die on account of what they did to no less than God’s own Son, the Christ, the truest Messiah of them all. No, somehow and paradoxically the results of their actions against the Messiah brought salvation and new life. God snapped the cycles of violence surrounding his messiahs by letting the ultimate Messiah die a life-giving death.

    Yes, the Lectionary would have us skip the part of 2 Samuel 1 that forces us to grapple with all this. But it’s not too much of a stretch, is it, to see the trajectory from the tragedy of this chapter all the way to God’s ultimate way of dealing with all such violence and tragedies. And maybe, therefore, there’s some Gospel Good News tucked into all that after all.

    Illustration Idea

    When Ronald Reagan died some years ago, it was hardly surprising to find the media—and a good bit of the country, too—singing the Gipper’s praises even as his various failings as president were smoothed over, skipped altogether, or treated as asterisks to a career that was otherwise hailed as a singular success. I say this was not too surprising given Reagan’s enduring popularity among many people as well as given the fact that even those who disagreed with him politically often found Reagan personally irresistible, witty, and charming.

    You wouldn’t have expected the same thing following Richard Nixon’s death but, as a matter of fact, pretty much the same thing happened then. Although he by no means committed the pastoral error of trying to “preach someone into heaven,” even the Rev. Billy Graham—who delivered the funeral sermon—did some posthumous propping up of the single most disgraced president in U.S. history. In fact, Graham began his funeral sermon by quoting David’s words about Saul from this very passage! (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7R9O1RYYqg ). Suddenly Nixon was no longer the fear-mongering, super-suspicious Watergate figure but a young man growing up near Yorba Linda, California, and finding hope in the far-off sound of a train’s whistle. Nixon was a dream-filled boy who rose to the heights and did many great things.

    Or so they said after he was dead.

    This kind of thing happens when famous leaders die, and it was no different in how David summed up Saul’s life in the song recorded in 2 Samuel 1. But is this a bad thing? Was David wrong for not creating a more nuanced, historically balanced recounting of Saul’s life in the song he composed?

    No, history—even the history of Saul as recorded in the Bible—will record the whole truth about any person’s life. But in death, is it too much to hope that what is good about each person will shine more brightly than the parts of one’s life that are dimmer? And if God’s own grace washes over us—as believers know it does in their baptisms—will it not be the case even for Almighty God that what he has to say about each one of us—Saul, David, Nixon, Reagan, you, me—will be the good things, the shining moments, the things that God shines up by his own grace?

    Grace at the end. A fonder hope cannot be had!

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 130

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    2 Corinthians 8:7-15

    Author: Stan Mast