Turning the Tables

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 19, 2003


2 Samuel 12:1-15 Nathan reprimands David

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

"Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'

"This is what the Lord says: 'Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'"

Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord."

Matthew 7:1-7 As you judge, so will you be judged

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Arcana Coelestia #9051.3 A speck and a plank

"Seeing a speck in a brother's eye" means seeing something erroneous in a person's understanding of truth. "The plank in one's own eye" means a huge evil that comes from false thinking. In the inner meaning, "wood" means goodness, and in the opposite sense, evil. . . . If "eye" and "plank" did not have these meanings, would "seeing a plank in an eye" have any meaning at all?


Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!" (2 Samuel 12:7)

After last week's sermon on "Halfway Measures," I had planned to offer you something a little more cheerful this week. However, our Bible story for this week (as we follow the Sunday School's lesson schedule) simply isn't a very cheerful one. And next week's is even more of a downer! So you'll just have to bear with me as we continue in a wintry, introspective mode for a little while longer.

After last week's Bible story about Saul disobeying the Lord's commandments, Saul's situation went from bad to worse. I won't burden you with the whole sordid tale. Suffice it to say that in the end, it got so bad that Saul, losing in battle and impaled by the arrows of the enemy archers, literally fell on his own sword and killed himself so that his enemies would not have the glory of dealing him the final blow.

Not long after Saul's death, David was anointed king over the southern region of Judah. Seven and a half years later, he was anointed king over the northern region of Israel also, and thus became king of all the Israelites. Unlike Saul, David was careful to follow the Lord's commandments in everything he did.

Well . . . almost everything. There was that little matter of Uriah the Hittite. The Hittites, though not Israelites, were friendly to them--and had been all the way back to the time of Abraham, who purchased from the Hittites a burial plot that became the first piece of ground in the Holy Land to be owned by the Hebrew people (Genesis 23). In David's day, the Hittites apparently lived peaceably among the Israelites. In fact, Uriah the Hittite was a soldier in David's army--so the Hittites and Israelites must have been closely allied.

The story of David and Bathsheba that led up to today's Old Testament reading is familiar. One evening David was strolling on the (flat) roof of his palace, and looking down, saw a beautiful woman bathing. Though he found out that she was married, he had her brought to him. He slept with her, and she became pregnant. David called her husband Uriah back from the front lines and tried to get him to sleep with Bathsheba to make it look like the child was Uriah's. But this would have been a violation of the soldier's code--to take his ease and sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers were on the front lines fighting. So even when David got Uriah drunk, he refused to go home, but slept near the palace. He was too honorable a man to make a good pawn in David's dishonorable secret plan.

So David took more drastic measures. He had Uriah himself carry a letter to Joab, the commander of the army, with instructions that were intended to bring about Uriah's death. The plan worked. After the prescribed time of mourning for her husband, Bathsheba--who apparently was a willing participant in the illicit liaison--became David's wife. The previous chapter ends by saying, "But the thing David had done displeased the Lord."

The Lord sent Nathan the prophet to skillfully induce David to see the error of his ways by telling a story that seemed to be about someone else. Nathan was barely able to finish his story about the rich man stealing and slaughtering the poor man's ewe lamb to prepare a meal for his guest. "David burned with anger against the man," we read. And then Nathan spoke the famous words, "You are the man!"

This tale of blatant sin, involving both adultery and murder by proxy, was the one major lapse of David's career. And the difference between David and Saul is told in the simple, single sentence spoken by David after Nathan had reprimanded him. Unlike Saul, who made excuses and tried to justify himself, David flatly admitted, "I have sinned against the Lord." No excuses. No qualifications. A simple admission that he had done wrong in the Lord's sight. And this was why David, unlike Saul, could continue as king. He was willing to see the error of his ways, humble himself before the Lord, and return to fully following the Lord's commandments.

As with all the stories of the Bible, the story of David and Bathsheba, and of Nathan reprimanding David, is not really about events long ago. It is about what goes on within each one of us today. As I have said many times before, the Bible, as God's Word, is not a mere history book. It is a book in which the Lord speaks to each one of us personally, guiding us, chastising us, correcting us, and giving us insight into the ways of the Lord and our own spiritual states. If we are willing to accept it personally, then the Lord will speak to us, giving us a critical message that we need to hear if we wish to go forward toward the kingdom of God rather than going astray into our own wrongful ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. David was willing to listen. And though he still had to suffer the consequences of his evil actions, the Lord forgave him, and continued to be with him. Are we willing to do the same as we look at our own lives?

In fact, this story tells a deep psychological and spiritual truth about each one of us. And in our reading from the New Testament, the Lord helps us to see just how it does speak to us. He asks, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" David pronounced swift judgment on a man who had merely stolen and killed his neighbor's sheep. Yet he himself had committed adultery and arranged for the murder of a human being--the woman's husband--in order to cover his crime. He clearly saw the speck in the eye of his brother (the rich man in the story), but until Nathan pointed it out to him, he missed the fact that there was a plank in his own eye.

How about us? Do we have keen eyesight to pick out the faults of others? Are we quick to pass judgment on them for their offenses and their failings? It certainly is easier to see that speck in the eye of our brother or sister! When we discern and point out other people's faults, there is no requirement for action or for change on our part. It's all their problem and their fault, and they are the ones who have to change.

The deeper truth in the story of Nathan's parable to David is that when we pronounce harsh judgment on others, we are really pronouncing judgment on ourselves. The Lord put it succinctly: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

This does not mean we are to uncritically accept everything everyone else does. We can and must make judgments on people's behavior, both to protect ourselves and those we love, and for the good of society. The Lord's commandment on this is found in another passage in which he says, "Do not judge according to the appearance, but make righteous judgments" (John 7:24). The judgments that we cannot make are judgments about a person's spiritual state. We can and must judge others' behavior, but we cannot jump to the conclusion that because their behavior is wrong, they are spiritually evil and are going to hell. This is the kind of judgment that belongs to the Lord alone.

In our New Testament reading, the Lord is especially addressing the kind of judgments we make. Are we hard on others, but easy on ourselves? Are we quick to point out every little flaw in the people around us, but quick to justify even the worst lapses on our own part? And most of all, do we, as David did, "burn with anger" against those that we perceive to have done wrong?

This "burning with anger" is a telltale sign. Making a rational and righteous judgment about someone's wrong behavior is one thing--and it is a necessary part of our existence in human society. But if we find ourselves flaring up and lashing out against the wrongs of others, whether that flaring up involves physical aggression against them or merely a torrent of angry words--or even if we merely feel the crimson anger boiling up within us, but don't express it outwardly--when that anger boils up and boils over in us, it is a telltale sign that there is more involved than the wrong that the other person has committed.

That wrong is getting into us and burning. And it is showing us that there is something within ourselves that we need to look at and deal with. Though the act may be the other person's act, the anger is our anger. And though it may not seem so at first, when we find ourselves in the midst of burning, semi-rational anger, underneath it all there is usually something within ourselves that we are angry at. We are simply directing our anger outside of us, where we have no responsibility to deal with it.

David provides a perfect example of this. Throughout his entire bitter struggle with Saul, David showed the greatest of restraint and respect for Saul. He never flew off the handle and lashed out at Saul. He even had several opportunities to kill Saul, but he never did. He handled the whole thing coolly and rationally, even though Saul was bent on David's destruction. Why could he handle this with such calm detachment? Because David was a very different character from Saul. Therefore, though he knew that Saul's actions were irrational and wrong, he could take them in stride and deal with them in a constructive way.

Not so when Nathan came to him with the story of the rich man who stole and kill the poor man's one ewe lamb. In this case, David burned with anger--even though earlier he had calmly dealt with Saul's repeated attempts to murder him. Why did he burn with anger? Because Nathan's story was really about David himself. David himself was the rich man. And his swift and harsh judgment was driven by his own inner, but suppressed, awareness of his own crime and his own sin. Saul's wrongs had nothing to do with David, and he could deal with them rationally. The rich man's crime struck a little too close to home--and David lashed out in anger. But he was really lashing out at himself.

How often have we done this? How often do we continue to do this? Perhaps when we find ourselves really flying off the handle at some real or perceived wrong that someone has done, it is time to look within our own soul, and seek out the inner source of that burning anger. If we find that we are unable to control ourselves in the face of particular "offenses" committed by the people around us, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at ourselves, and see whether we are really angry at ourselves for our own wrong feelings, faulty attitudes, and hurtful behavior.

Does this mean that what the other person has done is not wrong? That it's all in our head? Maybe and maybe not. The other person may be entirely innocent. On the other hand, the other person may be dead wrong. Recall that there is a speck in the other person's eye in Jesus' parable. And we may need to help that person remove the speck from his or her eye. We are here to help one another, as well as to correct ourselves.

The issue here is not so much whether the other person is right or wrong, as it is the way in which we respond to the other person. Do we pronounce harsh judgment with indignant anger in our voice? Or do we approach the other person with mercy and forgiveness, and an effort to separate the wrong from the person? If we cannot keep our cool and act from motives of love, it is a telltale sign that we have a plank in our own eye that is in serious need of removal.

I am reminded of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe in which a man is sitting by his window looking through a telescope at a nearby mountain. Suddenly he sees a huge, hairy, and very scary monster rushing headlong-down the mountain straight toward his house! He is about to sound the alarm to the household and to the whole town when he notices that there is a fly crawling down the other end of the telescope.

Perhaps the plank in our own eye is a matter of perspective. Perhaps we have the same speck of sawdust in our eye that our brothers and sisters have in theirs. We think it's "out there," which makes it look huge. But it's really very close to home--right on the pupil of our own eye. Let's work on getting that plank--or speck--out of our own eye first. Amen.


Music: Remembering
2003 Bruce De Boer
Used with Permission