Thursday, June 9, 2016

PENTECOST IV (Proper 6) 2016

King David does repentance - Albrecht Durer
Durer - King David Does repentance
The Old and New Testaments depict largely male dominated worlds. Indeed it is from the religious tradition of the Old Testament that our word ‘patriarchal’ derives. Yet surprisingly, given that tradition, memorable women make their appearance again and again, often playing key roles in the story of God’s dealings with humanity. Three such women feature in this week’s readings – Jezebel the wife of Ahab, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and an anonymous woman who anointed Jesus feet with perfume. Between the last two, there are some striking differences.

Bathsheba’s astonishing beauty makes her a victim of sinful lust. David uses his royal status and 'manly' power, not only to force an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife, but even to contrive her husband’s death so that he can 'possess' her permanently. The very language of possession speaks to the conception of male/female relations at the time. For a while, this seems to go unpunished, though not ultimately. In a famous scene, the prophet Nathan tells David a story that a prompts David, inadvertently, to admit his own guilt. Even so, in the story Nathan tells, what matters is the relationship between two men, the one rich and the other poor, and the rightful possession of a 'ewe lamb'. This is the not very flattering analogue of Bathsheba, who, like the lamb, is the passive object of male desire throughout.

Christ in the House of Simon Dieric Bouts (1415-1475)
The Gospel passage has some interesting parallels. Jesus, like Nathan, tells a little story to person of some wealth and importance in order to elicit a moral judgment that will cast light on the hearer's own behavior. It works in this instance also. Simon concludes as he is meant to. But in this story one of the two main characters serves directly as analogue for the anonymous woman anointing Jesus' feet. Unlike Bathsheba, however, she is not the innocent party. In fact she is the more guilty of the two. All we know is that she is a 'sinner in the city', which tradition has  interpreted as prostitute. If so, she is a prime target for the culture's condemnation. Yet Jesus turns it all around. She is not the one to be criticized, but the prosperous Simon whose hospitality, like that of the rich man in Nathan's story, falls decidedly short. That too, is to be forgiven, but precisely because it is the lesser fault, repenting it is easier. It is the woman we should take as a better model of faith and repentance.

The comparison of Jesus' attitude with the story of David and Bathsheba shows us just how counter cultural it is. This is not always easy to see, precisely because in some respects such an attitude remains deeply counter cultural for the modern world too.

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