12 August 2012
The grieving love of a parent for a wayward child
Tullow Parish, Carrickmines, Co Dublin
Sunday, 12 August 2012, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
8.30 a.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 1);
10.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer 2
II Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4: 25 to 5: 2; John 6: 35, 41-51.
May I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
One of the reasons people say they are turned off the Old Testament is the amount of violence we find in it.
People who have no problems watching boxers punch each other around the head in the ring in the Olympic Games, have real problems when it comes to stories in the Old Testament of wars, murders and battles.
And we have them all here this morning in our Old Testament reading (II Samuel 18: 5-9).
It is a story of violence: father and son fighting each other after son has violated sister, mercenaries brought in, pitched battles with slaughter and overkill – in those days a battle force of 20,000 amounted to weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Trying to find religious meaning in all of this, with our modern approaches to issues of justice and peace, becomes a difficult task.
So difficult, in fact, that it is not surprising to find some people find it difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the loving God that Jesus addresses not just as Father, but in the simple and direct Aramaic of his day as Abba.
And yet we have a story that that as we wade through the horror and gore, allows us to catch a glimpse of the love of God as a perfect father.
David has never been a perfect husband, nor has he ever been a perfect father, never a perfect king.
All these failings are there to see in earlier stories in this book: David and Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (II Samuel 11: 2-27), and then David’s failure to deal with Amnon’s violation of his own half-sister Tamar (II Samuel 13: 1-21).
In this story, David’s love for his first-born son and heir is great, but it prevents him from administering justice.
There is an old legal adage or maxim that justice delayed is justice denied. Frustrated by David’s inaction, his third but second surviving son, Absalom, takes the law into his own hands, and has Amnon killed. After time in exile, through Joab’s mediation, Absalom returns to the court of his father, King David.
But David’s refusal to see him for two years leads Absalom to hate his father. Absalom plans a coup d’état. He knows how to capitalise on festering resentment to the growth of David’s empire, court and bureaucracy, and to David’s inability to accept changing social patterns and values.
Absalom marches on Jerusalem. Fleeing the city, David escapes across the Jordan with his army and begins a military comeback. He divides his army into three groups, one each commanded by Joab, Abishai and Ittai (verse 5).
But David’s advisers keep the king away from any direct involvement in the decisions about what should happen to Absalom.
David orders his commanders to “deal gently” with his rebellious son. Despite his rebellion, David still loves Absalom, perhaps hoping against hope at this late stage to save his life.
The battle is fought in the “forest of Ephraim” (verse 6), on the east bank of the River Jordan. But Absalom’s militia, “the men of Israel” (verse 7), are no match for David’s army.
It is a cataclysmic battle. In the midst of the slaughter, in the killing of perhaps tens of thousands, we hear of the death of one individual, the wayward Absalom whose rebellion against his father began with good intent.
As he is riding through the forest, the handsome prince is caught by the “head,” perhaps by his long, dangling hair, which he cut only once a year, and he is left dangling from the branches of a great oak tree (verse 9; see II Samuel 14: 25-26).
In his desperate plight, we are left hanging too, wondering what happens, for this morning’s reading hastens the pace as it skips over some verses (10-14), perhaps for the sake of abbreviation – not to make a long story longer on a Sunday morning. In those missing verses, a man tells Joab of the plight of the dangling Absalom. But he leaves it to Joab to make the politically-charged decision of whether to kill Absalom.
Ten young men are sent to take advantage of Absalom’s predicament. He is still hanging from the tree when he is killed.
Another missing verse tells us Absalom’s body was thrown into a “big pit in the forest” (verse 17), despite the fact that he had already built himself an elegant, pillared tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Jerusalem so that he would not be forgotten (verse 18).
But the men who are brave enough to kill the prince when he is an easy target are not brave enough to tell David what they have done to his son. It is amazing how brave men can become so timorous.
And so, instead, they send a Cushite, an Ethiopian or Sudanese mercenary or slave (verse 21), to tell David the whole story, both the good news and the bad news, about the victory and about his son being slain (verses 31-32).
David is heartbroken, and his open grief makes him politically weak too. Instead of honouring the victors, he mourns the death of his son.
The cry of a grieving parent for the death of a son or daughter, no matter what age either of them is, is a cry that pierces the soul. Once you hear it, you can never forget it.
No parent expects to see a child grow to full adulthood, and then live to see that son or daughter die. It is an unnatural sequence or pairing of life events. It is one of the great injustices in life.
And David’s grieving, despite all that has happened before, despite his own role in bringing about these bitter and ugly events, is one of those truly authentic passages of reportage in the Bible:
“O my son Absalom, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
These truly are the words of a distressed Father’s love for his son, a parent’s love for the child.
No matter how wayward, how rebellious or how violent that child may be – and every parent has children who give problems – been there, done that – yet the love of a parent for a child is impossible to quench totally.
This was one of the readings chosen by Bishop John McDowell for the devotional reflections at the General Synod earlier in May, and as he read it, I could feel my heart breaking.
Perhaps this is what it means when it is said David was “a man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13: 13-14; Acts 13: 22). Despite David’s many faults, he had a heart like God’s, weeping over his wayward children, willing to die in their place, never allowing their rebellion and cruelty to harden his heart towards them.
His heart-breaking grief is echoed in our Psalm: “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice” (Psalm 130: 1). It is a cry to God for deliverance from personal trouble, yet it ends with a message of hope for all. God is attentive to our pleas, despite everything that has gone wrong. God forgives, God is merciful, God offers unfailing “love”, freedom from grievous sin.
Christ understands the difficulties created by the relationship between a parent and child, and between a parent who is grieved by the bickering and battling between two children.
That’s why the story of the Prodigal Son rings so true. It’s not just the story of a grieving father waiting for a wayward son, but it’s the story of a grieving father waiting for a son who may be his ruin, and the story of a grieving father who has two sons have fought so much with each other, that one refuses to welcome the other home. It has parallels with Absalom’s clashes with Amnon, and contrasts with David’s refusal to go out and meet Absalom when he returns home.
God’s love for us surpasses the love of any father or mother for their children.
God’s love is never petulant. God never goes into a corner and sulks.
And God’s bitter weeping and grieving when he sees our plight is expressed most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
And Jesus understands that so well. He asks in the Sermon on the Mount: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7: 9).
We did not have the Epistle reading provided in the Lectionary for this morning (Ephesians 4: 25 to 5: 2). But in his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul asks them to love “one another” (4: 32), expressing generously the same forgiveness that Christ shows us. In the way I forgive and I am loving, I should do so as God does (5: 1), for Christ loves us, even to the point of giving himself up to death for us.
In our Gospel reading (John 6: 35, 41-51), after feeding the 5,000, Christ offers himself as “bread that came down from heaven” (6: 41), and the promise that we are being brought into full union with God. If we believe in him (verse 45), who has “seen the Father” (verse 46), then we have the offer of life “forever” that comes from God the Father (verse 51).
Of course there are exceptions to what I say. I know only too well there are abusive parents and there are dysfunction families. But I also know that with God that there are no exceptions, that in Christ there is no abuse, and that Christ calls us into a relationship with his Father that is free of any dysfunction that we may have known in the past.
God’s grief for us is more perfect that David’s grief for Abaslom. God does not refuse to meet us when we reach out to him. And the love of God the Father, offered to us through Christ his Son, knows no exceptions, knows no boundaries, when it comes to his children.
And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Let your merciful ears, O Lord,
be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions,
make them to ask such things as shall please you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
as we are strengthened by these holy mysteries,
so may our lives be a continual offering,
holy and acceptable in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Tullow Parish Church, Carrickmines, Co Dublin, on Sunday 12 August 2012.