Power Exposed — 4 September 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
4 September 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana 

Power Exposed

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1 Samuel 25:14-19, 23-25, 32-34, 42-43

[While fleeing the murderous Saul, David supports his men by demanding payment for protection from the wealthy. One such person, Nabal, refuses, and David begins plotting revenge.] But one of the young men [who had been with Nabal] told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master, and he shouted insults at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields as long as we were with them; they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. Now, therefore, know this and consider what you should do, for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.
When Abigail saw David, she hurried and dismounted from the donkey and fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears and hear the words of your servant. My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him, but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.”[And Abigail further prophesied that David will be king, and advises him he should be wary of bloodguilt.] 

David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.”

[Abigail returned to her home, and when she told Nabal what had happened, his heart failed him.] Abigail got up hurriedly and rode away on a donkey; her five maids attended her. She went after the messengers of David and became his wife. David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives.

In the ancient world under Roman occupation—at least this is a working theory among historians and biblical scholars—a Roman foot solider could force you to carry his pack for one mile. That was the rule. A single mile, not a step more. Since my feet don’t come with odometers, I’m not sure how that was measured, but that was the rule. They could not force you to carry it any further. I’ve always loved the image of a Roman soliderrunning after some determined grandfather who will not relinquish the pack. The begging and cajoling to please, PLEASE drop the pack, though, I imagine, things could easily turn violent. Some scholars take this reading to suggest that when Jesus tells us to turn the cheek and carry the pack further, it is in order to be treated as equals. A backhand slap hits the right cheek of a child, a turned check forces the forehand punch of equals, they suggest. It is a compelling read. Making power see the marginalized as equal, and yet, I wondering if this isn’t really about exposing power. Not forcing power’s hand, but about how too often power abuses the very rules power establishes to provide protection, with the result being that the vulnerable are endangered.This is precisely what the cross does, according the Lutheran theologian Gehard Forde says: it exposes the depth of our terribleness and the even deeper love of God.

Speaking of terribleness: David is a thug, a bully. I have no idea how this person is the same cute, young shepherd boy anointed by Samuel or how he will be the king who will dance the Ark of the Covenant into God’s chosen city. Here he is marauding around the countryside with his gang, sometimes fleeing the murderous Saul, but mostly just threatening wealthy land owners for “protection.” Nabal, as his name tells us, apparently, is a fool. Does he really not know who David is? David, the feller of giants? David, the one who has killed tens of thousands of Philistines, and a hundred more just to gain the hand of the daughter of the king? Does Nabal really not believe someone with this brutal of a record is a real threat? Or does he simply have as little regard for the people under his care as David does?

Abigail and her people are caught in the middle of two powerful men, two men who are supposed to be protectors of wives and children and servants and flocks and soldiers, but who give little care for these thingswhen their bruised egos are at stake. Abigail acts, subverting her husband and allying with the would-be king.And her action exposes both men in their reckless regard for the vulnerable who rely on them. Only one heeds her advice. Abigail cautions David against incurring bloodguilt, against justifying loss of life as “collateral damage,” against responding with a shrug. It is wise advice: God may be distant character in this story, but God is consistent in abiding care for the vulnerable.

It is an easy thing, that careless shrug. We’ve seen it on the global scale: Russia invades Ukraine and East Africa starves. Psychologist Dacher Keltner, from UC Berkley, calls this the “power paradox.” Keltner observes that“while people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior.” I ran into Keltner’s work on empathy in an unforgettable piece in the Christian Century about Daniel Prude, who died on the street, pinned in police custody, confused, naked, and cold. And no one got him a blanket. Peter Marty wrote, “People with power don’t lack the capacity for empathy. They just typically insulate themselves from people they deem inconvenient.”

A careless shrug. The problem is we are all guilty of that shrug. I certainly am. Abigail could have gotten on her donkey and rode the other way— she might have been wise to, and we would have cheered her on her way.Run home, run to the neighboring farm, run to Saul to tell him where David was. But she stood toe to toe with powerful men and exposed them in their ruthlessness. The cross is same exposure. Gerhard Forde says that we put God in the cross to expose God. [See Note 1] We don’t believe that God will be what God says. That God can’t possibly be forgiving, can’t be merciful because, quite frankly, we don’t know anyone who might claim to be all-powerful who would ever be “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” And so we seek to expose God, but when we do, God exposes us: just how low and despicable we can be. And then is merciful anyway. Forde says it is when we are “caught in the act” that we are “caught by the act.” It is when we are honest about just how apathetic and abusive we can be to one another that God’s mercy and love can overflow into our lives and we can be transformed.

How then, shall we live, Beloved? It is a vulnerable thing to be revealed in this way. Over in Corinth, a great church experiment is underway. How would a bunch of rot-gut sinners from every walk of life in a town known for its sexual immorality… how would they live together? This is a hard passage, in one moment it lifts women to heights equal to men, and the next… It isn’t too difficult to see how Paul’s instructions justify and hide abuse.The whole passage has an air of the men are talking, sweetheart. But the late Krister Stendahl, once Bishop of Stockholm and, before that, dean of Harvard Divinity School, points out that Paul’s letters, and particularly the Corinthian correspondence, advocate for Love Rather Than Integrity. [See Note 2] He writes, “Integrity is the issue when people with different views and different convictions and different gifts must live together.” The trouble is, things get messy. And the appeal to integrity is an appeal to rules, and an appeal to rules must be investigated with the question, “Who benefits from this?” When I appeal to the rules, I benefit. Power benefits. But, as Stendahl says, “Love allows for the full respect of the integrity of the other, and overcomes the divisiveness of my zeal for having it my way in the name of my own integrity.” It is not that we should not act with integrity, it is that there is “a still more glorious way.”

Paul, in a few chapters, will name this way love. Not love as a feeling or something we pursue, love as something we practice. The author Toni Morrison calls love a diploma. In her novel Paradise, she writes, “ You can only earn — by practice and careful contemplations — the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.” Jesus’s cheek-turning, second-mile-walking, coat-and-cloak-giving is an exercise plan, the calisthenics of love, preparing us for the constant self-giving courage that characterizes love in the kin-dom.And, so Beloved, let us practice this kind of love, love that speaks out loud, love that reveals brokenness, abuseand love that practices mercy.


Note 1: This argument can be found in a 1983 issue of Word and World; the piece is titled, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.”

Note 2: He makes this argument in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.