People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, 2 Samuel 11:1-4a, 5-10a, 13-17
1 At the turn of the year, at the time when kings go campaigning, David sent Joab and with him his guards and all Israel. They massacred the Ammonites and laid siege to Rabbah-of-the-Ammonites. David, however, remained in Jerusalem.
2 It happened towards evening when David had got up from resting and was strolling on the palace roof, that from the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.
3 David made enquiries about this woman and was told, ‘Why, that is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite.’
4 David then sent messengers to fetch her. She came to him, and he lay with her, just after she had purified herself from her period. She then went home again.
5 The woman conceived and sent word to David, ‘I am pregnant.’
6 David then sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite,’ whereupon Joab sent Uriah to David.
7 When Uriah reached him, David asked how Joab was and how the army was and how the war was going.
8 David then said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house and sleep with your wife.’ Uriah left the palace and was followed by a present from the king’s table.
9 Uriah, however, slept at the palace gate with all his master’s bodyguard and did not go down to his house.
10 This was reported to David; ‘Uriah’, they said ‘has not gone down to his house.’ So David asked Uriah, ‘Haven’t you just arrived from the journey? Why didn’t you go down to your house?’
13 The next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk. In the evening, Uriah went out and bedded down with his master’s bodyguard, but did not go down to his house.
14 Next morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by Uriah.
15 In the letter he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest and then fall back, so that he gets wounded and killed.’
16 Joab, then besieging the city, stationed Uriah at a point where he knew that there would be tough fighters.
17 The people of the city sallied out and engaged Joab; there were casualties in the army, among David’s guards, and Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.
The author of this part of Samuel is the most unsparing of biblical writers. He tells the simple, deadly facts of David’s behaviour, from initial lust to final, murderous, command. Uriah was a resident foreigner, which perhaps made the King’s actions easier, but he was so loyal, that when David sent him home to sleep with his wife, he refused, because he was on active service in holy war. Frustrated in his plan to conceal the cause of Bathsheba pregnancy, David had no compunction in dispensing with the life of this foolishly committed soldier. In so doing, the King put himself in the power of his enforcer, Joab, with unforeseen consequences which are recounted later in this author’s story.
David is not presented as an unusually bad man. The author shows that he committed this crime because he could, because he had the power. We are at our worst, when we act in the arrogant confidence of our own power. This is as true of nations, as it is of men and women.
Gospel, Mark 4:26-34
26 He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. 27 Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. 28 Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’
30 He also said, ‘What can we say that the kingdom is like? What parable can we find for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed which, at the time of its sowing, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. 32 Yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’
33 Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. 34 He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were by themselves.
There are a number of passages where Jesus expresses his respect for the creative processes of the natural world. He uses the fertility of the earth and the spectacular growth of one shrub to describe God’s reign in the world. He had, after all, made the announcement of this reign, the centre of his preaching, yet his hearers might well have asked, “Where is it then?” These parables and others were Jesus’ answer. Is Jesus simply saying, “It all takes time, so just be patient. It all seems insignificant just now, but in time it will be great.”?
The point of the first parable is to compare forcing God’s reign, to a farmer forcing crops to grow. That’s not the way of it, Jesus says: while he sleeps, the seed will sprout. Just as the natural processes can be relied upon, so God’s mysterious care tends the seed of the kingdom. The profound truth of this teaching can be seen in the way men and women grow to express the goodness of their own natures. The growth cannot be forced or timetabled.
The second parable speaks of the growth itself: it is out of all proportion to the seed. We should not interpret this as “small beginnings bring huge results,” but rather as signifying the surprising, wonderful, and disproportionate goodness which can arise from any act of kindness, justice or peace.