Based on Psalm 51:1-12; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
A friend in Maine has a bumper sticker – one of many – on her pickup truck that reads: “If you’re not OUTRAGED, you’re not paying attention.”
According to the BBC, in March, 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted in the Syrian city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had spray-painted revolutionary slogans on a wall. By July, nationwide protests demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. One thing led to another and the country descended into civil war. Since then, some 200,000 people have been killed; 11,000,000 displaced from their homes; and 3,900,000 live as refugees in other countries.
CNN reported in April that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered the executions of 15 government officials so far this year, based on information provided by the South Korean National Intelligence Service. For example, one senior official with the Ministry of Forestry was executed for expressing dissatisfaction with the country's forestry program.
Neither Assad in Syria nor Kim Jong Un in North Korea can afford to allow any dissent or challenges to their authority, and so their default position is to crush it completely. How might things be different in their respective countries today had they a Nathan of their own to tell them parables about the abuse of power.
Psalm 51 is one of about a dozen psalms that respond to a specific situation in Scripture. Thus, the context for Psalm 51 comes from today’s reading from Second Samuel, and it is a psalm of David, not by David. But let’s forget David for a minute; these twelve verses become highly personal and affecting when we hear them with our own situations in mind.
The root of Sin is a distorted or broken relationship with God, and we know it when it happens, as in verse 3: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” We tend to be pretty quick with our Sunday assurances of pardon, but we can’t just wave our sin away with words. We need to face up to our sin as David did. Our confession of sin implies the need for a clean heart and a new spirit.
This is God's judgment: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions. Only then can forgiveness and reconciliation with our neighbors occur. Only then can God create in us a clean heart and a new spirit.
Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take. Do you think Bashar al-Assad thought at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's people, or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about it? Closer to home, do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by policies that seem to be helpful when all they actually do is frustrate and make the problem worse. At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into the sin of complacency and inaction?
Nathan tells his parable in such a way that David becomes outraged by the rich man’s behavior only to realize that they are his own actions, his own sin. And it is a rude awakening. I think it would be quite humbling, not to mention shaming, to hear Nathan say, “You are the man! You are the one without compassion!” When do we become outraged by our own behavior?
The Bible scholar Patrick Miller wrote that Psalm 51 “bids us open our eyes to look for evidence” that wickedness leads to its own destruction “in a world that is shaped and governed by God’s moral order.” The al-Assad’s of the world will be defeated by the weight of their own sin.
Psalm 51 is a reaction to Nathan’s parable and David comes up against the hard truth that his sin is ever before him. Thomas Long, a professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, wrote in response that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall tear you apart.” This truth is only bearable by God’s grace and willingness to judge us and restore us.
There is a moment in reading Psalm 51 when we know ourselves to be forgiven. That moment represents a new beginning which we owe to a faithful God of steadfast love and abundant mercy.
Which brings us to Jesus: today’s Gospel reading from John finds Jesus in Capernaum immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. The crowd continues to follow him, Jesus said, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Who wouldn’t follow a prophet who also provides a buffet?
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” Of course, Jesus himself is the sign. And the connection to Psalm 51 is this: the work Jesus is performing, then and today, is to cleanse us from our sin; to put a new and right spirit within us; to create in us a clean heart; and to reconcile us one with each other. Through Jesus, our relationship with God is restored. That’s what I hear when I read the psalm and the gospel together.
Psalm 51 includes tension, challenge, and promise. It speaks of places within us where we don’t want to go. It also celebrates redemption and God’s steadfast love. The afflictions we deal with in this psalm are spiritual. Our bodies are not broken but our relationships with God and our resistance to God are. The psalm also gives us an awareness of God’s saving action and cleansing ways. When we say “thy will be done,” we free ourselves to be filled with the will and grace of God.
The good news here is that God can and will restore the relationships we have broken. We are not doomed to remain in a cycle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness followed only by more sin. Through this psalm, we can see both our past and God’s future for us with new understanding. God will create in us a new beginning, sustain us in times of spiritual drought, and restore to us the joy of God’s salvation.
Maybe it’s time for our friend to get a new bumper sticker that reads: “If you’re not paying attention, God have mercy.”