Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 17, 2007
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:16-21; Luke 7: 36-50)
Note: The assigned reading from 2 Samuel tells only the end of a rich story. I asked the lector to read a fuller account before preaching:
A Reading from the second book of Samuel:
At the turn of the year David sent out Joab with his army, and they besieged Rabbah. David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David rose from his siesta and strolled about on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing, who was very beautiful. David asked who the woman was and was told, “She is Bathsheba, the wife of Joab’s armor-bearer, Uriah.”
Then David sent messengers and took her. When she came to him he had relations with her. She returned to her house. But she had conceived, and she sent word to David, “I am with child.”
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab. In it he directed him in this way: “Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce. Then pull the troops back and leave him to be struck dead.” And when the attack took place Uriah was killed.
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband had died, she mourned him. But once the mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her into his house. She became his wife and bore him a son. But the Lord was displeased with what David had done.
The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan said, “Judge this case for me:
In a certain town there were two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all, except one little ewe lamb. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. She shared the little food he had, and she slept in his bosom. She was like a daughter to him. Now the rich man received a visitor, but he wouldn’t take from his own flocks to prepare a meal for the guest. Instead he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and made a meal for the visitor.”
David grew very angry with that man, and he said to Nathan: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die! He shall restore the ewe lamb fourfold because he has done this and has had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David: “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel. / I rescued you from the hand of Saul. / I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. / I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. / And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more.
Why have you abandoned the Lord and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites.
Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan answered David: ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.’
The word of the Lord.
* * * * *
We are very rich today. Frequently when we are in the period of the liturgical year called “Ordinary Time” we have to wrestle with passages that are doctrinal and abstract. Instead, today the church gives ut two of the most engaging, human stories in all the biblical literature.
The story from 2 Samuel has it all. There is the handsome young shepherd – in today’s world he’d probably be referred to as a ‘hunk’ – whom the Lord has raised up to be the anointed king of Israel. There is lust and intrigue, adultery and even murder. We see the vindictive side of a man who wants to see others punished while he is blind to his own sin. We are treated to confrontation and repentance, and finally forgiveness.
And then in the story in Luke’s Gospel we meet the figure of the fallen woman. She’s known to be a ‘sinner.’ We all know situations like that, of someone shunned and looked down upon by the community. And we have the self-righteous Pharisee who is going to set himself up as the critic, the one who will decide whether this so-called ‘prophet’ is the real goods. The details of the story are very concrete. They are sensual, even erotic. Just think: a woman in the Near East who weeps so copiously that her tears are all over the feet of the prophet. She kneels at his feet and kisses them. She uses her long tresses to wipe precious ointment on his feet. This is preposterous! A real prophet would see the truth of it all.
They are two spectacular stories, full of much human drama and pathos.
But precisely because the details are so physical and engaging I think we could miss a feature that is crucial to appreciating what’s going on. It is the directness with which the Lord confronts the sinner in both stories. There is no pussyfooting or sugarcoating. The message is straightforward and unflinching.
Nathan first tells that very touching tale of the poor man and his loving bond with that little lamb, and the arrogance of the rich man who simply snatches it away rather than use the goods he already owns. But then he goes on to hammer David relentlessly: “It was not you who anointed yourself; I anointed you. . . . You didn’t rescue yourself, it was I who rescued you from Saul. . . . It was I who gave you the house and wives of your lord. . . . It was I who made you ruler over Judah and Israel.”
Nathan is not relating these things just to make David feel bad. He’s confronting him with reality, with the truth of his life and situation.
And in the Gospel Jesus confronts the self-righteous Pharisee in the same way. Remember that in the Near East one of the highest values of all was to show hospitality to the person who shows up at your door. But Jesus doesn’t simply offer some sort of smoothed-over, generic critique. He fleshes it out mercilessly. “When I arrived at your house you didn’t offer me water to wash my feet – that’s what a good host is supposed to do. . . . And you didn’t greet me with a kiss – as a good host is supposed to do. . . . And you didn’t anoint my head with oil – as a good host is supposed to do.” You didn’t do these things, but this woman who is a ‘sinner’ has done so, and in spades.
Let me add one more story to complete the point. It’s an experience I was part of.
Years ago I was a seminary professor, back before the flood. (I’m really a recovering theology teacher.) One night we had a guest lecture given by a psychiatrist, on the subject of guilt. After his talk a small group of the seminarians on the committee were invited down to the community rec room to have a beer with our guest and engage in conversation about his ideas.
One of the seminarians said, “Maybe you could help me to understand an event I heard about. In one of our houses the door bell rang rather late in the evening. The priest whose job it was to cover in such cases went down and opened the door. There stood a woman who was totally broken. She was sobbing unrelentingly and was unable to bring herself to speak. The priest tried to settle her down. And then finally she was able to say what was so troubling her. She said she had had an abortion and felt profound guilt and shame.
The priests did what most others would do, trying to console her. He said, “Try to be at peace. The Lord understands. I’m sure you were under such extreme pressure, having two children already and having to face this unwanted pregnancy alone and with no resources, that you didn’t really know what you were doing.” Gradually he got her to calm down and she left the rectory. And she went out and committed suicide.”
That was a shocking enough end to the story, but I will never forget the even more surprising response of the psychiatrist. He blurted out spontaneously, “Well of course she did!”
Huh? Say more, please!
He said, “The priest thought he was expressing support and compassion for the poor woman. But what he actually communicated was, ‘If I thought you really meant to kill your child (shudder!) that would be unforgivable!’ His well-meaning ‘compassion’ took away her last anchor, her last defense against despair. She knew she had really intended to kill the child. He couldn’t confront that truth. What she needed him to say was, “I know you had the abortion. I know you really intended to do it. The Lord knows you did it. And the Lord knows you really intended it. And the Lord still loves you and forgives you.”
It’s all about truth, about tough love. The Scriptures are shot through with expressions of the compassion of our God. But they are not romantic, they are not sentimental. It’s not a matter of Hallmark spirituality. Jesus tells us that the truth will make us free – but the truth, the whole truth, the unvarnished truth about ourselves, is damned hard to come by.
Nathan holds up the mirror to David and takes away his illusions about himself and how he got to where he was. Because he had power he just took what he wanted, without any concern for what he was doing to the lives of others. And Jesus breaks through the veneer of the Pharisee who prides himself on his religiosity while looking down on others.
I believe that there are two very difficult truths that take a lifetime to come to terms with on our spiritual journey.
The first is to acknowledge, to really appreciate, that everything we have in life is an undeserved gift, a grace we didn’t earn. I was reading recently about a young man who had ‘made it’ in the world and he was castigating those he saw as losers. “I didn’t have any real money but I worked at it. I made it on my own, why can’t they?” The writer of the piece said, “Oh, he made it all on his own? What about the social capital he enjoyed? Does he think he really deserved to be born in a country where children live beyond the age of five? Where there is clean water for drinking, and doctors and hospitals and schools with real books? Does he have any awareness of the parents who busted their chops to give him a chance in this world, of the teachers who worked to educate him?” And, as Nathan puts it, “if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more.”
To appreciate that we didn’t make ourselves is not an easy task. We all are tempted – and it is a temptation – to think we did it on our own, that we can save ourselves. The self-made person is one of our deepest illusions.
And the second difficult truth to face is our responsibility for the world we have been gifted with, that we share responsibility for what happens to our societies and for creation itself. Just to take one example: We live in a society in which 38 million children have no health insurance – and we accept that ‘that’s just the way it is.’ And the list of our accountabilities goes on and on. The truth could make us free, but how do we face all its implications?
The Gospel is given to us as Good News, to bring about in us the profound joy that enabled Jesus to confront the full cost of the Kingdom. The Good News is that, as difficult as it is to confront these truths, the deepest truth of all is the Lord’s love and fidelity to his promises. He really desires to live the mystery from within our very hearts. As Paul puts it, “The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me.”