Stories from the Old Testament often have a raw quality that may cause us to turn away from them. They may not seem uplifting; too much murder, rape, lies and disloyalty in them, we say.
After the Prophet Nathan accuses David of his sins of murder and adultery, he tells him “the sword shall never depart from your house.” (2 Samuel 12, 10) In our first reading today at Mass the prophet’s message is fulfilled. David’s son Absalom betrays his father and tries to take his throne. (2 Samuel 15, 13 ff) All that’s said about Absalom points him out as a bad kid.
“An informant came to David with the report, ‘The children of Israel have transferred their loyalty to Absalom.’” David flees from Jerusalem to escape Absalom and his army; he crosses the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives and then heads for the wilderness around the Jordan River for safety.
Jesus came to Jerusalem by that same route, we remember. He also crossed the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives to pray as he faced betrayal and death.
David’s advisors want him to kill his scheming son, but David refuses, because of his deep love for him. He becomes inconsolable when the young man meets a tragic death. “Absalom, Absalom, my son!” His love seems unexplainable.
Because Jesus is often called “Son of David” in the New Testament and so many of the psalms are attributed to David, we may tend to idealize the great king. David united the tribes of Israel and established a nation with its capitol in Jerusalem. Jesus himself appealed to David’s example when his enemies accused his hungry disciples of eating grain on the Sabbath.
Yet, the long narrative we read in the Book of Samuel today and tomorrow at Mass offers a darker picture of the famous king– he was a murderer and an adulterer. David had Urriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in his army, killed so that he could have Bathsheba, his wife. (2 Samuel 11, 1-17)
Psalm 51 is the response we make at Mass after listening to the king’s sordid deed. Tradition says it’s David’s own response after he realized what he had done. The Book of Psalms calls Psalm 51: “A psalm of David when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
And of my sin cleanse me.”
The psalm, the first of the Seven Penitential Psalms, asks God to take away both the personal and social effects of our sin, for our sins do indeed have emotional, physical and social consequences. Only God can “wash away” our guilt and cleanse our heart. Only God can “rebuild” the walls that our sins have torn down and the lives they have harmed. Only God can restore joy to our spirits and help us “teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.” Only God can bring us back to his friendship.
In the scriptures, David is a complex figure– a saint and a sinner. He’s also a reflection of us all. That’s why our response in the psalm at Mass today takes the form that it does –
Watching the fierce battles in our political world today we ask: Does God care about politics? Or does he keep out of it and want us to keep out of it too? Our reading from the Book of Samuel today says God cares about the world of politics.
“Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way,” God says to Samuel, “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have chosen my king from among his sons.” Samuel goes through all of Jesse’s sons, but none fit the bill. “Not him, not him, not him,” God says as one after another are brought to Samuel. “Are these all the sons you have?” Samuel asks.
Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel says, “we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.” So David is brought to them, ” ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance.”
The LORD said, “There–anoint him, for this is he!”
Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed him in the midst of his brothers; ‘and from that day on, the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.” (I Samuel 16,1-13)
“Anoint him, there he is,” God says. The prophet pours the horn of olive oil on David. What does the oil signify? A power not his own, a power that is God’s grace, to lead his people. The grace of God is needed to lead.
We are told to keep into the world of politics. It can be messy, uncertain, sometimes going nowhere world. But it’s part of God’s world and God’s plan. Not all of God’s plan, of course. Politics can’t become the only thing, which some think it is. Nor can we avoid it, as some unfortunately do.
We have to be engaged in the politics of our day. We’re also told to pray that our leaders– and ourselves– receive God’s grace.
Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed your glory to all nations. God of power and might, wisdom and justice, through you authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment is decreed.
Assist with your spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be useful to your people over whom he presides.
May he encourage due respect for virtue and religion. May he execute the laws with justice and mercy. May he seek to restrain crime, vice, and immorality.
Let the light of your divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government. May they seek to preserve peace, promote national happiness, and continue to bring us the blessings of liberty and equality.
We pray for the governor of this state
for the members of the legislature, for judges, elected civil officials, and all others who are entrusted to guard our political welfare. By your powerful protection, may they discharge their duties with honesty and ability.
We likewise commend to your unbounded mercy all citizens of the United States, that we be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of your holy law.
May we be united in that peace which the world cannot give and, after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
We pray to you, who are Lord and God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Adapted from a prayer for the inauguration of George Washington by Archbishop John Carroll, first Catholic bishop in the United States)
The Old Testament reading from the Book of Samuel for the day before Christmas. says so much about the mystery we celebrate. King David tells the Prophet Nathan that he’s going to build God a kingly palace like his own in place of the tent where the ark of the covenant was being lodged. It’s the right thing to do. The grand palace in the picture above is what he plans to build.
But God says in reply: “Should you build me a house to dwell in? I took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel.I have been with you wherever you went.” There is no way you can match God’s love, David is told. The door to a stable is more easy to enter than the door to a palace. And it will always be open.
“The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his Kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your Kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.’” (2 Samuel 7)
In this great prophecy, called the “Dynastic Oracle,” God promises to be with David and his descendants forever. God will give him an heir whose kingdom will be firm. “I will be a father to him and he a son to me.” Even if his descendants are unworthy, sinful, God will not turn away, as God did with Saul. His promise stands unbroken, forever.
How often in the gospels Jesus is called “Son of David.” He is no passing visitor, come and gone. His kingdom endures; his throne stands forever. He will never turn away. His door is always open.
We’re reminded of this great promise each morning at prayer in Zechariah’s canticle: “He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant, David…” The tender compassion of our God. like the dawn, is ours each day.
From December 17th until Christmas, we read on weekdays from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to prepare for the Christmas feast.
Today the gospel is Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his ancestry as “the son of David and the son of Abraham.” Jesus’ descent from Abraham fulfilled the promise God made to him: “in your descendants all nations would be blessed,” As a descendant of David, Jesus is a royal Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy offers a Messiah whom Jew and Gentile can claim for their Savior. His roots are worldwide, his ancestors reach beyond Palestine.
He’s not just a Jewish Messiah in Matthew’s listing. His bloodline includes women like Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba– foreigners, but also women with questionable backgrounds. In his humanity, Jesus didn’t come from perfect ancestors or untainted Jewish royalty ; he’s rooted in all humanity. His bloodline includes saints and sinners, or can we say he comes from a line of sinners and some saints? He shares our human DNA.
Matthew obviously wants us to look at Jesus’ family tree and see it as our own. We can be at home there. The Tree of Jesse, based on Matthew’s genealogy was a favorite subject for medieval artists working on illuminated manuscripts or creating stained glass windows for churches. A great way to see the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Luke in his genealogy goes further and sees Jesus beyond Abraham, descended from Adam. He becomes the new Adam. We are born from his side, we share his blood; he is the first born of many like us. So we pray in today’s opening prayer:
“O God, Creator and Redeemer of human nature…your Only Begotten Son, having taken to himself our humanity, may you be pleased to grant us a share in his divinity.” (Collect)
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80
Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works. (Psalm 139:13-14)
King David sang with lyre and harp the mystery of his origins. Like a loving mother, God stitched him with needle and thread in his mother’s womb.
The prophet Isaiah received his name and mission “from my mother’s womb” to be “a light to the nations.”
John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:15, 79).
The greatest of the prophets—the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14)—Zechariah’s son was the first to be sanctified in the womb by the Holy Spirit, marking a turning point in salvation history. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation, inspired David’s psalms, and spoke through the prophets, anointed the Forerunner of the Son of God in Elizabeth’s womb.
At six months of age, before his body was fully formed, John’s spirit was whole and awake before reason or the senses knew the light of day. At the voice of Mary, John “leaped” in his mother’s womb “and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).
Mary, full of grace and the Holy Spirit, was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb in preparation for her role as the Mother of God.
The Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was neither sanctified in the womb nor immaculately conceived, but beyond conception itself, though language must grasp at the graspable to express his beginningless beginning. The only-begotten Son of the Father was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s immaculate womb, uniting in his Person divinity and humanity, heaven and earth.
The new Eve, the new Adam, and the new Elijah closed the Old Testament and opened the New. The Holy Spirit, who was known only vaguely in the Old Covenant took center stage in the Acts of the Apostles after Pentecost. From womb to womb down the centuries, the Spirit of truth has led us back to the Eternal Womb of the Father from whom all persons originate.
The spirit longs to soar beyond history to the eternal principle from which everything originates. Beyond the Story (history), beyond time and eternity, beyond the beyond…
To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:
This Sunday there are two stories about forgiveness in our liturgy at Mass. From the Second Book of Samuel we hear the story of King David whose sin is pointed out to him and then declared forgiven by the prophet Nathan. The gospel reading from Luke tells the story of Jesus forgiving a sinful woman in the house of a Pharisee, who can’t seem to believe in forgiveness when he sees it.
The two stories complement each other. They remind us that forgiveness is not a simple matter; it’s a mysterious gift of God.
King David’s sins are well known and nothing to be proud of. He lusts after Bathsheba, the wife of Urriah, one of his officers. When David fails to disguise his adultery, he arranges to have Urriah killed and then marries his wife. The king’s sins are more than sins of lust or murder; his sin is an abuse of power. David’s the king, with absolute power over his subjects, answerable to no one, he thinks. He can do anything he wants and no one stands in his way. Unfortunately, he’s lost a sense of guilt; his conscience doesn’t bother him. He’s a king who can do no wrong.
Notice, though, that David recognizes sin and injustice in others. When the prophet Nathan tells him the story of someone who robs a poor man of his precious lamb, David immediately wants to right the wrong. Nathan says “ You are that man.” But David’s blind to his own sin, and so the prophet must awaken him to see what he has done. If you’re blind to sin, how can you be forgiven?
Finally, David admits; “‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin, you shall not die.’”
Now, the woman in Luke’s gospel who goes to the house of the Pharisee, unlike David, knows she’s a sinner and rejoices in the forgiveness she finds in Jesus. She expresses herself with that extravagant gesture of love. “Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”
In Luke’s story, it’s the Pharisee who’s blind. He can’t see forgiveness or the love behind it. He’s blind to God’s love, first of all, welcoming the sinner, and to the woman’s love that comes from being loved so much. He doesn’t seem to think forgiveness exists and he doesn’t understand it.
Simon, the Pharisee in our story, is like the Pharisee in Luke’s parable about the two men praying in the temple. He sees himself “unlike the rest of humanity, greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” He’s too good to need forgiveness. His blindness comes from self-righteousness.
Luke’s gospel is filled with sinners. Let’s be like them: the sinful woman, the prodigal son, the tax-collector Zacchaeus. They all recognize they’re sinners and they end up rejoicing at a banquet. They enjoy the mercy of God.