2 Samuel 11.26-12.10, 13-15; Galatians 2.11-21
. . . Early in his career, as he was first making his way as a consultant in the world, [Joel Henning] was surprised to receive a call as if from on high, from his own equivalent of King . . . in the form of George Armstrong, president of the company he had been helping for some time. Joel was amazed and gratified that he would be called by the CEO personally. Could he come down to the office right away? Joel remembers dropping everything, including the meeting he was chairing at that very moment. As he left his office in Berkeley and sped across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, he remembers how his hands gripped the steering wheel, thinking that here at last was his one chance to influence things in a substantial way. His possibility for an audience in the throne room of the palace. His first real face-to face with that center of power and mystery, the chief executive officer.
As Joel entered the CEO’s office directly from the elevator on the top floor, he noticed immediately that the entire office was white from floor to ceiling—white furnishings, white curtains, and white floors. Even the artwork was white. This royal aerie was in fact a kind of mythical ice palace. In the far corner, his desk at a forty-five-degree angle to Joel, sat the man himself. The desk was placed below a backlit alcove so that, as Joel says, George seemed to glow a little, as if the recipient of some mysterious but continued benefaction.
The interview began with George royally thanking Joel for all the good work he had done with the company. This thank-you was a little undermined by the fact that George couldn’t quite recall his loyal subject’s name and insisted on calling Joel Jack. Joel didn’t correct him; that day Jack seemed fine to him; he could live with it. Under these privileged circumstances why quibble over the small matter of his personal identity?
Then George got down to business. He realized that Joel had become good friends with one of the vice presidents, Robert. George wanted Robert to take a job with the overseas division of the company. Robert didn’t want to go. “You know him, Jack, I I’d like you to take him aside and tell him that this move is in his best interest.”
Joel hesitated, recalling the standards of truth-telling and open, aboveboard honesty he had been recommending for the company to shake off its legacy of distrust. He put one toe in the dark water, saying, “You know, George, with all I’ve been recommending for the company, it might be better for you to tell Robert yourself.” At that moment a large hideous beast reared out of the lake. It said, using George as its fearsome mouthpiece, “Jack, I don’t find that remark helpful for my purposes, or for your future with this company.”
Joel hesitated for one moment more before this terrifying apparition, withdrew his foot from the water and now, totally reincarnated as Jack, found that he suddenly agreed (David Whyte, The Heart Aroused, Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America [New York: Doubleday, 1996]: 43-45).
Joel, Jack; Peter the Apostle, Peter the coward; David the King, David the murderer—Why does Scripture persist in telling us stories of this kind? Why do they have so much in common with our own stories? Is it because it is not enough to be edified and affirmed? Perhaps. A regular pat on the back can be encouraging, but it can also make us smug and self-satisfied.
Is it because it is important to have our preconceptions shattered by stories that capture our attention and break the mold? (In Andrew Greeley, Thy Brother’s Wife [New York, Warner Books, 1987], see the “Personal Afterward.”) Yes. Morality plays can be instructive, but a steady diet can lull us into thinking that we know how the story ends and, worse yet, we can grow cynical about the lessons they are designed to teach.
But they are also there because the writers are prepared to remind us that the capacity for this kind of behavior lies within each of us. In public forums we are quick to devise alternatives to a conversation of that kind. We draw distinctions between private and public behavior; between responsibilities and rights; between effectiveness and character. In boardrooms and offices we draw distinctions between goals and strategy, means and ends.
Even our introduction to the work-a-day world has the character of an initiation into sororities and fraternities where the rules of engagement are about anything but our own capacity for darkness. As David Whyte observes, slowly but surely we find ourselves managing “the precarious balance of innocence and experience in our voice. Too much innocence and we are sensed as ‘dangerous idealists,’ too much experience and we may sabotage everything we touch with a practiced cynicism” (Whyte, Heart Aroused, 147).
The editor of the Davidic stories knows this well. He has at his disposal more than one tradition about David the King. One of those traditions is tribal and is found in 1 Samuel and the early chapters of 2 Samuel. It is, as Walter Brueggemann observes, a “trustful truth . . . naive and pre-critical.” This part of the tradition rarely notices David’s affronts and when it does, it finds a way to celebrate them. (Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985]: 20).
The second tradition available to the editor is the “sure truth of the state” and appears near the middle of 2 Samuel. Lacking the naiveté of the tribal tradition, the stories it tells about David are still “sure and self-confident” and they justify the way things are in the reign of Solomon, David’s son. If things did not quite happen the way they are described that is only because larger goals are at stake (ibid, 72).
To the two traditions already at his disposal, the editor adds a third—what Brueggemann describes as “the painful truth of the man.” Added at the end of the literature, it is this tradition that critiques everything that appears elsewhere in the Davidic cycle of stories. “It is David’s awful moment of self-knowledge” (ibid, 43). In the face of his child’s death, which David experiences as the judgment of God (whether it is or not), he is no longer able to manage “the precarious balance of innocence and experience in his voice” (Whyte [see above]). He can only confess.
In this way the editor of the Davidic cycle parts company with both the tribal and national definitions of David’s life and work. Joel, Jack; Peter the Apostle, Peter the coward; David the King, David the murderer—Why does Scripture persist in telling us stories of this kind? Because the writers know that the capacity for this kind of behavior—this darkness—lies within each of us; and that, strive as we might to redefine the nature of human endeavor, life inevitably brings us face-to-face with God.
None of this is to suggest that the struggle for the kind of maturity that escapes naive conformity or thorough-going cynicism is somehow unreal. The editor combines and qualifies the tribal and national traditions about David by adding the third. He does not eliminate the others in favor of leaving us with only the painful truth about David . . . and ourselves.
Life’s choices are complex and a single set of answers to the challenges it poses would only reveal the arrogance of a faith that is more dependent upon our own restatement of God’s will than it is on embracing God. That is why David emerges as a far more complex figure than he might otherwise; and that is why Israel’s literature reckons again and again with David, not only as the symbol of flawed greatness, but of hope as well. Taken as a whole his life is marked by a transparency that allows him to be used of God, whether as shepherd, friend, king or poet.
Nonetheless, the editor reminds us that David (and all of us) are forever in the presence of God. The roles we play are, in a sense, as accidental as the choice of clothing we made this morning. Consultant, apostle, king—father, mother, child—as defining as these roles may be, each a calling with its own imperatives, they have a transitory character that is imbedded in our larger identity as the children of God. And that is an identity worth quibbling over.