Today in Sunday school, we discussed a prayer of repentance. This prayer is something that is familiar to most of us; I sang a few lines from this Psalm in my childhood in the fairly well known chorus “Create in me a clean heart.” Christians of course identify with repentance — we identify with it so much that anytime we look at a liturgy, we will find a prayer of repentance that everybody can pray. While this prayer was over a specific event in David’s life — it is that kind of prayer, all of us have had opportunities to pray for forgiveness, and to be made whole again.
One thing that Church does for me is serve as a “sinners anonymous” group. People go to church, and seek Christ’s help because they recognize that their sinful attitudes and behaviors are destroying their lives and relationships. We seek not only the help of our “higher power” to change our lives — but we also are here for each other, and encourage each other to get better. Church is, among other things, a community of people who are repenting of their sinfulness, and learning to live in a better way.
When Nathan approach David, David had much to repent. The whole mess started when the kings went to war in the spring, and David stayed behind — leaving the battle in the capable hands of Joab. David went up on the roof, saw a woman, and decided he wanted her. He sent inquires and found out that the woman’s husband was Uriah, and her father was Eliam. These names mean little to us unless we read 2 Samuel 23, which includes a list of men in David’s inner circle. Both of these men were among those who were closest to David. It is almost inconceivable that these names were not enough to change David’s behavior.
David summons the woman, rapes her, and when she gets pregnant he lets Uriah take some home leave (so that the baby might be seen as his), and then tells another person in the inner circle to make sure that Uriah dies in battle. For those who think rape is too strong of the word; my understanding is that if a person is unable to say `no’, the person is also unable to give meaningful consent. Bathsheba was in no place to say no, as David held too much power. We should also notice, no scripture passage speaks of Bathsheba needing to repent of committing adultery, nor seducing David — there is nothing that blames the victim, the blame for this sin falls square on David’s back.
The Psalm that was read today is a prayer of repentance from a man who raped a family member of two of his closest friends, and went on to have another one of his friends kill another one. It is no wonder that Nathan told David that the sword would never leave his house — it is no wonder that there was a civil war, and the main players were people in David’s own family. This passage tells us that God accepted the repentance of a rapist and a murderer who betrayed his closest friends: Many people would consider David’s actions unforgivable.
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?”
This is the thing — we have a sense of what is fair, and sometimes ideas such as generosity and forgiveness do not seem fair at all. Scripture tells us that Jesus came to bring the good news of salvation — to save people from their sins: but, there are times when you hear people talking, and it sounds like the good news they are sharing is the good news of hell for other people.
Now, with David’s behavior, you can imagine that Nathan was not exaggerating when he told David that the sword would never leave his house. It seems that quickly after this incident there is a civil war, and David’s son Absalom takes up arms to overthrow his father. Before David was king, he was the nation’s favorite hero. If his actions were not so unforgivable, his popularity would prevent people from rallying behind Absalom. Forgiving a rapist and a murderer is unfair.
The good news for us is that God is merciful instead of fair. When Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of Heaven, he describes a kingdom where people get what they need, instead of what they deserve — the kingdom of Heaven is unfairly generous. I’m sure you all remember when Jesus told this story:
The kingdom of heaven is like a a vineyard. It was time to harvest and press the grapes, so the owner went out at sunrise to look for laborers, and he hired everybody he could find, offering to pay them standard wages for the work. A couple hours later, we went out to look for more workers and he offered to pay them a fair wage. Noon came, and he was able to find more people to hire. When it was mid-afternoon, he searched for even more workers — and he managed to find a few.
When the end of the day came, and the work for the day was finished, the owner paid the workers who started in the afternoon first. The owner gave them the same thing he offered to pay the people who worked since sunrise. Those who came in at noon got the same amount, as did those who came late in the morning. When he finally got to pay those who worked since sunrise, he payed them what he agreed to pay them in the first place.
These workers were angry: They were angry that they worked through the heat of the day, and they were paid the same as people who only worked a couple hours. These workers complained that this was unfair, because they worked all day, yet those who came in last were paid as if they also had worked all day.The owner pointed out that they had agreed to wages before they worked, and they were happy with them at the start of the day — they should have no complaint about this. He also reminded them that this was *his* money, and he had the right to do whatever he wants with it, including being generous.
Mercy, forgiveness and generosity are lovely things — but they are not fair. We are called to a model that breaks those rules of fairness, and gives people what they need most instead of those things that they deserve.
As a church, we are at the very least an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven — what that means is that we need to get used to God’s radical forgiveness. This in not an easy task, it never was an easy task: Let me give a couple examples. First, you likely remember that the first person mentioned who died a martyr was Stephen — Paul was there with the killers. Paul then became very active in persecuting the church, and God only knows how many deaths he was part of. After Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus, and blinded Paul — Paul was sent to the church. The church was more than a little uneasy welcoming the man who was the cause of their suffering. Radical forgiveness is hard.
Radical forgiveness is so hard that one of the first church splits was about how much should be forgiven. If you remember, one of the reasons that Christians were put to death is that they refused to worship Caesar; a small token act of Caesar worship was enough to free them from torture and death. Those who saved their lives by saying “Caesar is lord” were called “lapsi” There were a large group of influential people who felt that bowing to Caesar was a big enough sin that lapsi should never be allowed to repent and rejoin church life. The side that won was the side that realized that Jesus taught a gospel of forgiveness; and that God’s grace and mercy was greater than the Lapsi’s sinfulness. Granted, nobody suggested that sin should be ignored — forgiveness isn’t ignoring sin, nor is it excusing an action. Forgiveness recognizes the offense for what it is, and then refuses to break relationships, or hold onto the offense. Christ taught the church to forgive — so, even Paul and the Lapsi were forgiven. Time and time again, people pray David’s prayer of repentance — and time and time again, God answers prayer.