Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 8, 2021
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 Commentary
I have this theory that although the actors who win the Academy Award earn the award for the entirety of their performances in the movies in question, there is often (maybe always) one key moment in those films that really cinches things. So in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks is impressive throughout but it’s that moment when he finds out he has a son and then with choked emotion asks if the boy has any developmental challenges like his father—“Is he smart or . . . or is he . . .?”—that did viewers in emotionally and earned Hanks another golden statue. Father and son moments are like that.
The moment that very likely won Marlon Brando the Oscar for Best Actor in the movie The Godfather occurred in a funeral parlor and is also a father and son moment, albeit devastatingly different. The mafia king’s son, Sonny, had been mowed down in a fierce machine gun ambush at a highway toll booth. The scene is gruesome as Sonny is riddled with scores of bullets. (The actor, James Caan, who played Sonny once said that the special effects crew told him they had never before put so many “pips”—the little explosive charges that can make it look like clothing had been pierced by a bullet—onto a single actor!) Later, in the funeral parlor, Don Corleone (Brando) tells the funeral director to do what he can to make the man presentable so his mother would not have to see him in this dreadful shot-up condition. Then with emotion straining through every muscle in the Don’s face, he mournfully says “Look how they massacred my boy.”
It is a terribly sad scene.
It is also a scene fraught with the history of a violent man who had raised a violent, ill-tempered son in a mafia world where murder is considered “just business.” The sorrow the old mafia kingpin felt for his son was something his own actions had made highly probable if not inevitable.
Kind of like King David with his boy Absalom.
The history-fraught backstory here is pretty well known but would have to be reviewed if one were to preach on this text. Ultimately the sadness of it all goes back to David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his shameful set of arrangements that led to her husband’s death. The prophet Nathan nailed David for his sins, and although David abjectly confessed and repented, Nathan predicted that a sin like that may well boomerang and ricochet through his family for quite a while to come. Actions have consequences, and when the head of the family behaves with such wanton abandon and lack of regard for others, that may bear bitter fruit in children who go and do likewise.
Whether one can draw solid lines between David’s bad example and what happened next, the fact is that it was not long before one of David’s sons (Amnon) took an incestuous shine to one of David’s daughters (Tamar, a full sister of Absalom). Ultimately Amnon was driven so insane by his lustful obsession with possessing Tamar sexually that he raped her and then, filled with the self-loathing that often comes after an irrational lust is sated, Amnon tossed Tamar aside like an old shoe.
What comes next is enough murderous mayhem as to require an R-rating if it were a movie today. (Following my having preached a sermon on 2 Samuel 13, I was told by my Elders that there are some texts in the Bible on which a preacher should NEVER base a sermon, and 2 Samuel 13 was one of them! I am pretty sure that’s not true, but the sex and violence of that part of the Bible is properly arresting and even off-putting.) Absalom takes his revenge on Amnon. Then David, for reasons that were strategic, political, and personal, in turn rejects Absalom and banishes him from the better precincts of the kingdom. Absalom stews, leads a rebellion, and is finally killed.
It doesn’t get much more tawdry than this. But at the end of the day, neither does it get much sadder than this. David had played his hand as best he could and according to his best lights (though most of us might say that David went too far and took a wrong turn at several key bends in the road) but when he discovers his strapping boy Absalom is really and truly dead, David heaves forth sobs of grief sufficient to engulf the entire city of Jerusalem. Indeed, the wrenching cries of “Absalom, Absalom, my son, Absalom” echo along the corridors of Scripture. No parent who ever lost a child could so much as glance at the end of 2 Samuel 18 without dissolving into tears him- or herself.
If it’s the Gospel of hope and joy you try in some way, shape, or form to preach each week as a pastor, this chapter presents its challenges! Just not a lot of Good News here, it seems. But the story is at least a reminder of how much we need the grace of God in our world, starting altogether too often in our own family circles.
Yes, we could point out that this ruin in his own family may have been either a divine punishment (as the prophet Nathan seemed to predict) or the unhappy natural consequences of David’s sin—and maybe those two options are not at odds with one another after all—but since few of us would dare to claim we are without sin in our lives (and vis-à-vis the other members of our families), merely connecting this tragedy to something David had “coming to him” hardly mitigates the genuine tragedy and sorrow of all this. (It reminds me of the scene from the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven in which a young gunslinger is trying to justify his having just killed a man. “Well, I guess he had it comin’ to him,” the young man says, to which the grizzled character played by Eastwood replies, “We all got it comin’ to us, kid.” Indeed.
We live in a broken world and in this world, brokenness seems to have a habit of begetting more brokenness. The abused tend to grow up to abuse others. Those who had once been victimized and oppressed too often use their pain as a license to turn right around and oppress some other group. On and on it goes until you wonder what can ever deliver us from this grim cycle, this apparent bondage to calamity.
Maybe the answer really is in the one who—in the corresponding gospel lection for Proper 14—said that he was the bread of life whose flesh alone can bring a new day into all eternity. He is the One who finally absorbed evil without passing it on, who took the worst the world could dish out—and who most certainly did NOT deserve it, did not get what he had coming to him—but then as good as declared, “There now, this ends with me.”
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 5-6):
“All Israel found [Absalom’s] derring-do irresistible, of course, and when he finally led a revolt against his father, a lot of them joined him. On the eve of the crucial battle, David was a wreck. If he was afraid he might lose his throne, he was even more afraid he might lose Absalom. The boy was a thorn in his flesh, but he was also the apple of his eye, and before the fighting started, he told the chiefs of staff till they were sick of hearing it that if Absalom fell into their clutches, they must promise to go easy on him for his father’s sake. Remembering what had happened to his hay field [which Absalom had torched], old Joab kept his fingers crossed, and when he found Absalom caught in the branches of an oak tree by his beautiful hair, he ran him through without blinking an eye. When they broke the news to David, it broke his heart, just as simple as that, and he cried out in words that have echoed down the centuries ever since. ‘O my son, Absalom, my son, my son. Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.’ He meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”
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