Abundance & Corruption
A sermon on 2 Samuel 11: 1-15 & John 6: 1-21 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 July 2009
Looking back through my files, it appears that I have never preached on the story of David and Bathsheba before. I don’t think I’ve been deliberately avoided it, but I haven’t tackled it. I think it would be rather remiss of me if I skipped over it tonight though.
I couldn’t believe it when I realised it was coming up tonight. This weekend, the men of the church have been focussing a fair bit of attention on what it means to be men. We headed into the bush, did a day’s labour helping with the re-fencing of farms destroyed by the February bushfires, and then around our campfire we celebrated a male initiation rite with one of our young men, Daniel. Many sociologists argue quite seriously that one of the reasons that there is such an epidemic of dangerous, immature, screwed-up men in modern western society is that we have largely lost any proper initiatory rituals whereby older men take boys, as they reach adolescence, and begin teaching them some of the basic lessons they need to learn if they are to grow into well-adjusted, good and true men. In the absence of a solid tradition of older men initiating young men, young men create ignorant ways of initiating one another, all too often involving anti-social pack behaviour with dangerous abuse of alcohol and cars, and impulsive predatory sexual activity. Obviously it takes a lot more than one night to form a good and true man, but the lessons have to start somewhere and the relationships have to start somewhere, and we think that Daniel has begun on the right track.
So, having spent the weekend thinking about what makes a good man, here we are hearing a story of one of the greatest male heroes of the Judeo-Christian tradition plumbing the depths of the darkest side of corrupt masculinity. David, of course, is often seen as some sort of idealisation of masculinity. Michelangelo's statue of him is history’s most famous depiction of the idealised male body. His youthful conquering of the giant Goliath and his later successful reign over Israel at the height of its political and military power cemented his exulted place in hall of fame. The whole idea that the Messiah would be “the Son of David” meant “the new David”. The messiah is the new David. That’s how highly David was regarded.
But tonight’s story, which is remarkable in part for having survived the inevitable pressure to edit it out, shows David at his ugly worst. He spots a beautiful woman, he exploits his power to have her brought to his bed, he exploits his power again to try to cover up the resulting pregnancy, and then finally resorts to pulling more strings to have her husband killed. Almost all men wield power in at least some areas of their lives. The question is whether they wield it for good — generously, creatively, respectfully and wisely — or for ill. Here we see David, seduced by his own power and his own popularity, wielding his power in corrupt ways for his own selfish gratification, simply because he can. This is precisely the sort of deluded and dangerous corruption of masculinity we hope and pray that Daniel will steer clear of.
One of the thing that drives the sort of behaviour we see in David here is a particular belief system which I think we see Jesus challenging in the story we heard in tonight’s gospel reading. This problem belief system tells us that we haven’t got enough, that we aren’t getting enough, and that if we don’t grab everything we can while we’ve got the chance, we might miss out, because there probably isn’t much available and probably not enough to go around. Whether it’s money, or food, or possessions, or sex, or privileges, or affection; we are often told that things are tight and you had better get in for your chop or you’ll be going without. So David, convinced that he’s probably not getting enough, impulsively grabs at whatever catches his eye, even human beings, and has his rivals eliminated to protect his stash.
When we believe that things are tight, that the things we need are scarce, what happens? We become rivals in a competition for the scarce resources. We cling to what we have and we grasp for more. We are afraid to share, even with those who are clearly in desperate need, because if we give anything away, we might be next. I heard that a survey found that about half of all Australians had not personally experienced any impact of the current so-called Global Financial Crisis. But you don’t have to have been personally impacted for the mindset of it to suck you in. Hold on to what you’ve got, grab a bit more if you can, and protect it zealously, because the bottom could fall out of your world at any moment. The whole capitalist system of economics is built on this principle of scarcity. If we started with an assumption that there was actually more than enough to go around, then most of the tenets of capitalist economics would be rendered nonsensical.
But I put it too you that that is precisely what Jesus is saying. There is more than enough. God is a God who gives abundantly. There is no need to hoard. Look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and see how generously God provides for them. There is plenty to go around. This is a definite theme in the gospel according to John, which we are diverting into for the next five weeks. Do you remember what the first miracle story is in John’s gospel (and John calls the miracle stories “signs”)? Abundant wine. The guests at a wedding are well lubricated already, but the wine has run out, so Jesus produces some more. A couple of bottles? No! Six kegs of it! About five hundred litres! God is a God of abundance.
And this story of the feeding of the five thousand is similar, and perhaps even more explicitly about God’s abundance versus our perceptions of scarcity. The perception of scarcity is well articulated within the story. “It would take six months wages to feed all these people,” says Philip. “There is a boy here who has five bread rolls and two fish. But that’s not going to go far among all this lot, is it?” says Andrew. Not enough to go around. Not enough to go around.
But Jesus has other ideas, and perhaps so did the little boy, the only one in the crowd who was willing to respond to the perceived scarcity with an act of generosity. And who knows. Perhaps that is what the miracle was. Remember John calls it a sign, not a miracle. Perhaps the generosity of the little boy and the blessing of his generosity by Jesus unleashed a true miracle — the opening of the hearts of the crowd to transcend their fear of scarcity and begin sharing what they had. Truth be known, that would be every bit as miraculous as turning five bread rolls into five thousand and twelve, if not more.
Usually this fearful perception of scarcity leads only to stinginess, selfishness, and a self-protective unwillingness to open up what we have and share freely. But when coupled with power, and even more when coupled with power and the sort of fame and popularity that makes one feel exempted from the normal constraints that apply to everyone else, it can lead beyond mere selfishness and into corruption, treachery, exploitative and predatory abuse, and even murder.
But I would urge Daniel and all of you to hear the good news that Jesus proclaims. God is a God of abundance. God has created a world in which there is not just enough, but plenty. And God delights to open the storerooms of heaven to us and rain down abundant blessings upon us. God’s goodness is not doled out in stingy handfuls to only the most deserving leaving the rest of us to scamper after the crumbs that fall from the table. God loves to give in full measure, pressed down and running over. And when you know that, deep in your being, you will not only feel free to be similarly generous, but you will be largely immune to any temptation to abuse your power to grab at every beautiful thing or person that comes within your reach.
There is more than enough — twelve basketfuls left over — but if you are busy protecting your own and grasping for more, you may blind yourself to the glorious truth and fail to enjoy the abundance. God loves you. God’s is extravagantly generous. Look at the lilies of the field. Release your grip on what you have, your five rolls and two fish or whatever it is you have, offer it to Jesus for others, and you will see the miracle. Abundant life. Enough for all. And more than enough left over.