Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 25:14-19,23-25,32-34,42-43+Psalm 37:1-2,7-11,16,35-40+(Galatians 5:13-21)+Luke 19:1-10

We certainly have some characters in our readings for this morning. Except for Jesus and maybe Abigail, none of these people are the kind you’d really want to bring home to dinner. Except if you’re Jesus, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

At this point in our David story, he is not yet the great king that we hear so much about. No, Saul is still king, and because Saul knows that David has been anointed by God to succeed him, David’s position vis-à-vis Saul is a little bit precarious. He and some number of his followers have been wandering in the desert to get away from Saul, and their situation is not great. They need food, water, and shelter. And so, David sends some of his men to the ultra-wealthy leader of the Calebites, Nabal, and says something like, “Hey, we protected your men and your shepherds out here in the wilderness, so what are you going to give us as a reward for our good behavior?” Now, take note that Nabal never asked them to do this. No, this is what my Old Testament professor Joel Baden calls a protection racket that David and his fugitive band are running. David’s folks could have caused harm but didn’t and are seeking payment for that.

But before you start feeling all sorry for Nabal, he was not a good person. Even his own wife dimed him out. The way my professor interprets this whole story is that David, desperate to escape from Saul, kills Nabal, marries his wife, and thereby gains all of Nabal’s wealth. No, that isn’t what the text tells us, but then, the people of the Hebrew scriptures revered King David. We revere him as a great king and ancestor of Jesus, so anything that smacks of negative press was likely to have been softened somewhat.[1]

In the end, what we do know is that Nabal is dead, David marries Abigail and picks up an additional wife, Ahinoam, as they go along their way, because we all know that biblical marriage includes polygamy.

I really don’t mean to be flippant about David and his greatness. There are certainly reasons for him to be admired and celebrated. He consolidated the kingdom of Israel at Jerusalem, subduing all those who would destroy them. But realistically, it’s kind of like being able to admire the of some of the Founding Fathers of this country while acknowledging that they enslaved people, including their own children in the case of Jefferson. Many histories left that part out, but over time, our origin story has been corrected. The same can be true of figures in the bible. In the book of Chronicles, which also tells the history of the kings, including David, this episode with Nabal is not even mentioned because it was so problematic. Did anyone really believe that God struck Nabal down? Not likely.

We live in an age in which some would sanitize history, not tell the whole story, and would punish those who insist on doing so anyway, to the point of banning books and limiting what can and cannot be taught. I am of the opinion that we can ask questions of our ancestors. We can ask questions of God and scriptures. We can doubt and probe and explore, because only then will we come to something close to Truth with a capital T.

I love the story of King David. Yeah, he may be like the Godfather in some respects, but you know who loved him anyway? God did. And if God can love him, I’m pretty sure God can love you and me, too.

Jesus loved some pretty shady characters, as well. In the chapter before the one we are in today, he tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector where the Pharisee prays to God, giving thanks that he’s not like all those people and bragging about how good he is while the despised tax collector won’t even raise his eyes toward heaven, beating his chest and bewailing what a sinner he is, throwing himself on God’s mercy. (Luke 18:9-14).

At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus and his followers are on their way to Jerusalem. Today, Jesus and his followers are in Jericho, only about 15 miles east of Jerusalem. I can’t help wondering if we are to look at this tax collector that Jesus encounters as maybe like the one in the temple, asking for mercy for being such an awful person. First of all, tax collectors worked for Rome, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they padded their receipts, took more than was required, and pocketed the extra. Zacchaeus must have heard about Jesus and knew that he was passing through, and if the children’s bible song is accurate, he was “a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” And he is willing to make a fool of himself just to get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. He must have been mortified when Jesus looked up in the tree and told him to run home and start fixing lunch because he was on his way.

And it changed Zacchaeus’s life. He promised to mend his ways, to restore stolen money to those who needed it. I like to imagine him like the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, prancing around town giggling and kicking up his heels with glee.

God did not give up on King David.

Jesus did not give up on Zacchaeus. Or Judas. Or Peter. Or anyone else.

If nothing else, we can take from these accounts of less than stellar people that there is hope for all of us.

These days, we are all too quick to give up on those who disagree with us or who hold truly despicable, truth-denying positions. We don’t have to embrace the awful parts, but we can’t give up on anyone. Because no one is beyond God’s love. No one.

[1] For more on this, read The Historical David: The Real Life of An Invented Hero by Joel Baden (HarperOne, 2013).

ASEPSermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas