He was left there hanging between heaven and earth. What a line in the Old Testament reading today! Holy Scripture can turn one heck of a phrase and tell one heck of a story. As both Canon Razim and Canon Callaham pointed out in their very good sermons last week, this summer the lectionary is taking us through the long and conflicted reign of Israel’s King David. David is one of Scripture’s most complex characters. Of David, the poet Robert Pinsky says, “He is wily like Odysseus and an impetuous daredevil like the Scarlet Pimpernel. Like Hamlet, he pretends to be crazy. Like Joan of Arc, he comes from nowhere, ardent and innocent, to infuriate the conventional elders…Like Robin Hood, he gathers a band of outcasts and outlaws. Like Lear, he is overthrown and betrayed by his offspring.”[i]
It is that last bit to which today’s reading from 2nd Samuel pertains. Most people both inside and outside the Church call tell you the details of the story of David and Goliath. Many also remember David’s murderous desire for Bathsheba. But the biblical rebellion of Prince Absalom against his father King David is, these days, obscure. It’s an epic story worthy of a Hollywood action movie, so let’s see if we can remedy that obscurity.
Absalom is David’s charmed third born son. We’re told he is exceedingly handsome. (2nd Samuel actually spends several verses talking about Absalom’s beautiful hair.) He is talented. And he is good. Absalom is one that some might want to hate due to pettiness or jealousy, but he is able to win over all skeptics, not because he is slick, but because his graces are genuine. Absalom doesn’t put on airs. He shows legitimate concern for those in need. In a world of potentates and peasants, he is a different kind of prince.
Ironically, Absalom’s private life is a mirror image of the public adulation he receives. Absalom’s beloved sister is assaulted by their shared half-brother, and King David refuses Absalom’s request for justice. As a result, Absalom feels slighted and disregarded by the one whose approval he most desires.
And eventually, whether due to the public praise, the private disregard, or some combination of both, the lens through which Absalom views the world shifts. On the one hand, he begins to believe that the rules which apply to other people don’t necessarily apply to him. He believes he is justified no matter what he does, that he is entitled to the adulation he has received and more. On the other hand, he develops a deep resentment for and suspicion of those who have slighted him. Ultimately, Absalom begins to believe that he can rule Israel better than his father, that he, in fact, deserves to rule.
Maybe Absalom had a grand plan to usurp the throne all along. Maybe he was calculated and conniving from the beginning. But I don’t think so. I believe that with each small step down his new and darkened path, Absalom uncritically fed his resentment, fed his suspicions, fed his sense of entitlement until he slowly, really, failed to recognize right from wrong. He almost casually allowed himself to rationalize each next action so that it seemed to be in the service of the good, until he finally took up arms against his father the king. And today, Absalom reaps what he has sown. He finds himself and his army defeated at the Battle of Ephraim Wood.
Here’s the scene as we read it this morning: His forces scattered, Prince Absalom escapes on a mule. Mules being unruly creatures, Absalom’s runs under the thick, low hanging branches of an oak tree. The Prince gets clotheslined and caught by the neck in the notch of a branch, and his mule keeps running out from under him. Can you visualize it? The whole scene intends to be ludicrous. Prince Absalom the beautiful, the brave, the good—always together, clear-eyed, and stalwart—now flails ridiculously from a tree as even the donkey flees from him. And the narrator says, “He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth.” He is dangling and exposed, and within minutes the horde descends upon him and rips him apart.
He was left there hanging, between heaven and earth. The line, of course, is more than a visual depiction of the scene. It describes what Absalom’s life had become in the months and years leading up to his rebellion, as he had fed his skewed view of reality and taken small step after small step away from the good into the darkness.
Who could claim that the Bible has no relevance today? We know this story. We see it on the news every day. Maybe we experience it in our own lives, though hopefully without such dire consequences. The politician, the businessperson, the pastor, the teacher, or the spouse rationalizes some small decision as acceptable or justified. “I deserve this something extra,” one might say, or “He took advantage of me, so he deserves what’s coming to him,” or “No one will notice if I just…” That one small decision leads to another, and to another. It’s rarely one large bad choice that leads to the clotheslining. Rather, it’s feeding on small bites of cynicism, or resentment, or entitlement; it’s a series of small steps in to the darkness. As 2nd Samuel says today, “The forest claimed more victims than the sword.” It is death by paper cuts, until eventually one finds himself hanging between heaven and earth, confused about right and wrong because they have been intermingled for so long.
In these days in which privacy has all but ceased to exist, scarcely a day goes by—including this past week—without some public figure being, like Absalom, exposed for those decisions, for going down that road, and the horde surely descends to pick that person apart. We do so, I suspect, because it deflects our attention from the ways we rationalize the undeserved liberties we, ourselves, sometimes take.
What to do? Is it enough to take Absalom as a cautionary tale? No. We must with steely eyes name the justifications we sometimes make and quit feeding ourselves those untrue narratives. We must cease using our blessings or bad experiences to rationalize ways of being in the world that lack charity and grace. We must not pretend, and then believe, that our experiences in this world give us license to follow a false path and call it good. Paul says as much in Ephesians today. “Put away all that is false,” Paul says, “Put away all bitterness and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…[Say and do] only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Be imitators of God, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We know Paul is right. We know that love, and charity, and the acknowledgement that every good we have is grace are the food that nourishes and strengthens, and keeps us on the path of the good, even after we encounter the dizzying heights and harrowing lows of life.
And so, at the end we come round to the Gospel. Three weeks into Jesus’ “bread of life” speech, we may be wearying of the metaphor. But it’s never been more important than today. In our lives, we must pause and ask from where we get our life, our nourishment, and our strength.
There is that old Native American story in which a grandfather imparts wisdom to his grandson. The grandfather says, “Child, within me there are two wolves, and they are at war with one another. One wolf is resentment, justification, self-deception, and falsehood. The other wolf is hope, and gratitude, and joy, and grace.”
The grandson thinks for a moment and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” To which the grandfather responds simply, “The one I feed.”[ii]
We are all, sooner or later, just hanging there between heaven and earth. Jesus says, “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live, and live forever.”
[i] Pinsky, Robert. The Life of David, 4-5.
[ii] This story was given to me by Carolyn H’Doubler.