In the musical Camelot, King Arthur is trying to adapt medieval feudalism to fit the ideal he has in mind. The problem is that feudalism is all about, as Wikipedia puts it, “reciprocal legal and military obligations among warrior nobility.” The grants of lands and titles come from kings, who were also warriors. And generally in a warrior society, might makes right. But Arthur knows that this is wrong. The strongest guy is not always in the right. But the way the world works, that rarely matters. In the play, Arthur's innovation is the idea of enlisting might for right. He institutes the rule of law, under which all, strong and weak, must live. He turns his Knights of the Round Table into instruments of enforcing the laws and dispensing justice. Ironically, Mordred frames Guinevere for adultery with Lancelot and by law, adultery against the king is treason. The queen is sentenced to burn. But Lancelot, Arthur's mightiest knight, leads a rescue of Guinevere, killing several fellow Knights of the Round Table. This act of violence triggers a war and the tragedy of the fall of Camelot is that might in service of rage and revenge triumphs over right.
To quote Lord Acton, “Power corrupts.” When you can do things others can't because of your physical, financial or political power, it's hard to deny yourself all the things which that power can bring you. Studies have shown that people who are handsome or pretty are more likely to cheat on their spouses. And you have only to follow the news to see how people with lots of wealth and/or political influence abuse the power they have. We are not much different from animals who use their power to get what they want: food, a mate, or the position of top dog.
We have different Old Testament readings in our lectionary but similar displays of naked power in both. In 1 Kings 21, Ahab, king of Israel, is in his second home, his palace in Jezreel. His neighbor Naboth has a fine vineyard. Ahab wants it to plant as a vegetable garden. He offers Naboth a better vineyard or the land's value in money. But Naboth expresses a sentiment grounded in the history of Israel. God directed Joshua to divide up the promised land between the tribes and clans. To Israelites, their land was given to them and their descendants by God. Naboth cannot bring himself to give that up.
So Ahab sulks. Jezebel, his Phoenician wife, can't understand why her husband can't have what he wants. In her culture, all land belongs to the king, not to God. So she comes up with a scheme to get Ahab what he wants. She forges letters in Ahab's name calling a fast. Fasts were announced when there was a serious matter before the land, like a threat from a foreign army or the famine resulting from the drought Elijah announced. The people were to fast and call upon God and ask for his mercy and forgiveness of their sins.
Jezebel arranges to have Naboth seated in the place of honor at the event and then have 2 confederates denounce him for cursing God and the king: the twin crimes of blasphemy and treason. He is then dragged outside and stoned. Then Jezebel tells Ahab that the vineyard is his, seized from the dead traitor. But through God, Elijah knows and announces God's judgment on Ahab and Jezebel right there in their bloodily acquired vineyard.
The other track of the Revised Common Lectionary tells the almost parallel story of David and Bathsheba. Our passage from 2 Samuel 11 and 12 picks up after David commits what should be the perfect crime. After having impregnated the wife of his loyal soldier Uriah, David called the man home from the front. But Uriah, mindful that his fellow soldiers are far from their families, refuses to sleep with his wife. So, much as Jezebel will later do, David sends sealed orders by Uriah that he be put into the thick of the fighting and the rest of the troops withdrawn. So he dies in battle. And David claims his widow. But again through God the prophet knows. Nathan gets David to condemn himself through his reaction to a hypothetical case of injustice. Cleverly, he uses the story of a lamb to appeal to the shepherd-king. David loses his temper against the rich man who kills the lamb of his poor neighbor. “...the man who did this deserves to die!” David roars. To which Nathan replies, “You are the man!”
In both stories, the rich and powerful take what is not theirs to satisfy their pleasure. In both cases, they abuse their positions and mask their theft with murder. In both cases, God knows and pronounces judgment on them.
Ever so often, when discussing morality, people appeal to what is natural. Unfortunately, nature really can't tell us much about what we should do, only what we in fact do. It is natural for a lion, upon defeating the head of a pride, to kill all the cubs sired by his predecessor. It is natural for higher tier baboons to physically bully those lower in the hierarchy, who in turn bully those below them. It is natural for the black widow spider to eat a male after mating with him. Nature can't be relied upon to tell us how we ought to behave.
Human beings, like other animals, tend to use their power to get what they want, even if it means screwing over those less powerful. Slavery was an normal institution in most societies throughout most of history. (Which is why the term “normal” is no more useful than “natural” when discussing ethics.) And slavery still exists and not just in benighted countries far away. Human trafficking, which happens right here in this country, is slavery. And paying people less than a living wage, which is widespread in restaurants and retailers, is little better than slavery. Why have so many companies moved their manufacturing overseas? Because for what they would have to pay an American for an hour's labor, they can pay people in those countries for a whole day's labor.
In the vast majority of societies, men have more power than women. Even in our society, men make about 30% more than women. I was shocked to find that this was true in nursing where women greatly outnumber men and often have positions of leadership. Only once in 30 years have I worked for a male head nurse. So why do the 9.6% of nurses who are male make on average more than the 90.4 % who are female?
In Jesus' day, women's opportunities were more limited. Marriage was the main goal for the Jewish virgin. A Jewish woman could only inherit her father's property if he had no sons. Women could go into business but generally only if they had no male relative to support them. And when it came to worship, women were segregated from the men and didn't participate, except for Sabbath prayers at home. A contemporary prayer had the worshiper thank God that he was not a woman. And the Talmud, a commentary on the Torah, said it was better to burn the Torah than to entrust it to a woman. Jesus teaching women was revolutionary. And letting a disreputable woman touch him was scandalous.
A sinful woman, probably a prostitute, had come into the banquet which was held for Jesus as guest teacher in the local synagogue. In such cases, the poor could enter but were, of course, to keep to themselves and not interfere with those at the banquet tables. As was the custom, Jesus and the others were reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and eating with their right hands. Their feet would be pointing away from the table, which is how the woman got access to Jesus' feet. She was anointing them with oil, crying on them and drying them with her hair. A respectable married woman would never uncover her hair and let it hang loose in public. And if the woman was a prostitute, just touching Jesus made him unclean. Imagine how you would feel if at a church dinner, a woman in tube top and hot pants with way too much make-up on came in and was touching and smearing lotion and crying on me. That's how the Pharisees felt about the drama this woman was making over Jesus.
So Jesus tells a parable of a creditor who forgives the debt of 2 men, one of whom owes 10 times what the other does. Who will love the creditor more? Jesus' host, Simon, says it would be the man forgiven the larger debt. Jesus agrees and then points out the ways in which the woman did more for him that his host had. This indicates the depth of her repentance. Jesus forgives her and tells her that her faith in him saved her. Naturally, this goes over like a lead balloon with the Pharisees.
Society is less forgiving than Jesus. One of the hardest thing to do these days is get a job if you have ever been convicted of a crime. Most job applications have a box you must check if you have. How many of the applicants who check that box get hired, do you suppose? And only occasionally do they specify felony convictions only. So anybody who has been convicted for possession of a joint, having an open container, having a DUI, or shoplifting, or any minor infraction, must check that box. How is someone to get their life started over if they can't get a job because of a onetime lapse of judgment?
Again the more powerful you are, the more easily you can get around a youthful or not-so-youthful indiscretion. Big name actors and celebrities rarely have their careers seriously sidelined for any crime less than murder. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1977 and then fled to France hours before sentencing. Since then, he has made many successful movies, won 6 Oscars and has never served his sentence.
If what you've done is really notorious you can get interviewed on TV shows and write a book. You might even get your own TV or radio talk show: G. Gordon Liddy and ex-governor Elliot Spitzer spring to mind. Politicians who have committed adultery or certain misdemeanors can re-elected. There is a definite double standard when it comes to crime and punishment of the rich and powerful.
Jesus, as usual, looks at the heart. To him the big divide is not between rich and poor, sinner or saint. All human beings are sinners. To Jesus the crucial difference is between the penitent sinner and the unrepentant one. Is the person moving towards God or away from him? Are they open to the good news of God's love and forgiveness or are they closed to it? Jesus can't save those who won't let him.
At first the 3 passages don't quite go together. Except for this, all 3 of the sinners repent. The passage from 1 Kings doesn't go on long enough but Ahab does repent. Jezebel does not. David repents. The woman who washes Jesus' feet with her tears repents. And God forgives them. Rich or poor, respectable or not, God forgives us if we humbly confess our sins and ask for his forgiveness. That is how God manifests his power: in giving us a chance to repent and then in forgiving us. That is where we are equals: in our need for God's grace. And in that we are equally precious to him.
In next week's passage from Galatians Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If we are one, we cannot bully or discriminate against one another. It would be like an inmate convicted of 3rd degree murder looking down upon one convicted of 2nd degree murder, or one charged with attempted murder feeling superior to a prisoner charged with actually committing murder. Paul, though he asserted his apostleship, never forgot that he was the last one Jesus appeared to, and only after Paul had arrested and condemned to death other Christians. Paul definitely loved Jesus more than many because he was aware of the great debt forgiven him. Paul thought, if God can forgive me, he can forgive anyone and he wanted everyone to know that. And that is why he got upset when anyone tried to put obstacles in the way of people coming to Christ. And that is why he bristled when anyone suggested that the grace of God was not sufficient to salvation, that we had to add something to earn salvation. Salvation isn't a standard of behavior you must reach in order to be accepted by God; salvation is a pardon handed down by God for the sins we can never undo or repay, and for which our only response should be eternal gratitude.
The Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal, and that's true as far as it goes. And obviously Jefferson did not mean equal in intelligence, or strength, or wealth, or class. He meant equal in worth and so equal in the eyes of the law. But we are equal in another way. We are all sinners; we all fall short of the glory for which God created us. We all betray even our own standards and constantly justify our own lapses while jumping on the other guy's flaws. Therefore, when God shows us mercy, we cannot boast of our own merits. We can only be thankful. If I have cancer and a doctor saves my life through surgery and treatment, I have no reason to look down on others who are still suffering from cancer. Rather I should tell them about my cure and urge them to see my doctor.
Today you seldom hear the term inferiority complex; you hear a lot about low self-esteem. And that can be a problem if it keeps a person from doing what he can. But I think more problems in this world are created by those with a superiority complex; who have very high self-esteem and feel entitled to everything they desire. They can be blinded by their own strengths to their equally real weaknesses. They disregard advise and caution; they refuse help; they don't recognize the contributions of others; they think that they and they alone are indispensable. This is arrogance and under its old name of pride is considered the worst of the 7 deadly sins. By definition, it precludes a humble, which is to say realistic, assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses. It precludes any doubt that you are right. It precludes asking God for help or really anything substantial.
Arrogant people bully others and disregard their feelings and rights. Ahab could not comprehend Naboth's desire to keep his family's land when it conflicted with the Ahab's desire for it. David could not see how Uriah's life was more important than David's reputation for righteousness. The Pharisees could not see how a woman's salvation was more important than their rules of ritual purity and propriety. Until Elijah, Nathan and Jesus showed them how God saw them and what they'd done.
Jesus said that in his Father's kingdom many who were first shall be last and the last shall be first. Do not be surprised if you find that the most honored human being in the new creation is someone you never heard of before, someone who was never made a saint by any church, never given an award, never put on a top ten list, never able to be found on a Google search. Because that person probably never made a name for him or herself, just acted in the name of Christ. That person never had any earthly power, only the power of the Holy Spirit in him or her. That person never had any wealth on earth, but only treasures in heaven. The people who give themselves totally to Jesus are like icebergs: what is most important about them is unseen and immense, beneath the surface, keeping them upright in a fluid and shifting environment. And never forget the lesson of the Titanic. For the proud creation of men sank while the nameless creation of God traveled on. And Jesus said that on the very last day, the impact we have on the least of his siblings will reveal whose power we put our trust in, our own or God's.