Sermon: Silence

There are two kinds of silence present in both of these two passages: the silence which makes space for the inner witness, and the silence of oppression. But, the ways in which the characters in each narrative respond is very different. What can we learn from these two stories?


"Thou Art The Man" (1884) by Peter Frederick Rothermel
“Thou Art The Man” (1884) by Peter Frederick Rothermel

For all of recorded history, bringing legal disputes to the local ruler or wise man for public airing and judgment was a centerpiece of good government, and still is. And, doing so – among other things – makes all who are there part of the public witness for each case and decision; so, the community as a whole is in effect a party to the success and enforcement of each judgment that is made.

In our reading from 2 Samuel, Nathan makes his case to David in just such a setting; which was a wise move on his part! He knew he needed that public witness for the accusations he was about to make.

Imagine the scene: David is sitting in a chair with his scepter and crown on a platform in front of the crowd. People are standing around, waiting for their turn to be heard, or perhaps hoping for some drama to enliven their day. The King’s advisors are off to one side, waiting to be called upon when needed.

Then, Nathan steps forward, and begins to tell his story. The King listens, his anger rising as he hears the tale; and, when he can’t restrain himself any more, his face red, gripping his chair with both fists, he leans forward and says “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!”

Nathan pauses, then says four simply painful words: “You are the man!” Then, turning his back on his King, he tells the people of all the terrible things David has done: Rape, Deception, Betrayal, Murder.

I imagine David sitting there, mouth open, silent. The sin he’d so carefully hidden from the people, from God and even from himself, is revealed. He has not fooled anyone. He took Uriah’s wife and impregnated her. He engineered the death of one of his greatest and most loyal warriors. He married the grieving widow to make the pregnancy appear legitimate. He tried to deceive everyone, betraying the peoples’ trust and that of the Lord. Yes, he deserved to die: condemned before the people and before God out of his own mouth.

But not one word is said in condemnation of Bathsheba. Nathan does not accuse her, nor does David defend himself through blaming or implicating her. (Unlike Adam’s blaming of Eve and Eve’s blaming of the serpent in the Garden.)

Many have said that Bathsheba enticed David, but doing blames a victim who has lost everything. Nowhere in the Bible is it even hinted that Bathsheba had done anything wrong.

David has all the power. His word is, literally, the law. Nothing would have happened if he had not succumbed to the temptation within himself. Willing or not, when David sent messengers to “fetch her” (the scriptures do not say “invite her”), Bathsheba couldn’t say no: he was King. She did nothing to deserve the loss of her home, her husband, and her reputation that David thrust upon her. David had no one to blame but himself.

David deceived himself into thinking he had the right to use the power given him for his own benefit. But through Nathan he is confronted by a greater power. A power that Nathan does not use for his own purposes: a power for which Nathan is a custodian, not the owner.

There’s another important point here, Bathsheba says nothing. The only time her words are even made known is when she sends her fearful message to David: “I am pregnant.”

Yes, David protects Bathsheba, but only to save his own reputation and perhaps to protect the child. We see no evidence of any concern for the woman except for a brief statement that he “consoled” her by fathering Solomon through her after the first child’s death. I suspect that the use of the word “console” here means ensuring that Bathsheba would be cared for. Because later, near the end of David’s life, the narrative of Solomon’s ascension implies that David had not interacted with Bathsheba for a very long time.

So, in Nathan’s condemnation of David, Bathsheba, like so many victims of injustice, is kept silent. He only mentions her in passing, and doesn’t even refer to her by name. She is a possession, a baby machine, the object of David’s lust. She has no control over her own life.

John’s story of the adulterous woman is both very similar and very different. We once again have a public forum and an accusation of adultery. Jesus is asked to judge. Only, the accusers are not seeking justice. Rather, they seek to entrap Jesus through their self-proclaimed superior knowledge of the law.

It is possible they’d heard rumors that Jesus was the product of a liaison prior to Mary’s marriage to Joseph. The stigma of being illegitimate was just as severe in Jesus’ time as it was in David’s. Those conceived through an unmarried woman were often relegated to the outskirts of society. We in the modern world may have a hard time understanding how, for millennia, and even within living memory, such people were called bastards and ostracized; deemed sinful for something beyond their control.

It may be that those trying to bully Jesus had this on their minds. But I think their main question was the one that is constantly asked and addressed throughout the Gospel of John, which is “who knew the law?” Did Jesus know the law? These men wanted use the law to trap Jesus into judging himself, like David did.

But there is a major difference between these two stories. Bathsheba was not judged, nor was she present when David was judged. Here, the woman is present, but the man is not seen or mentioned, let alone judged.

This is a critical detail. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is there a law that says a woman alone can be judged for adultery. The man must always be judged, too. The laws in Deuteronomy 22 make it clear that sexual sin requires two participants. The woman could be held responsible only if she was a willing participant. In that highly patriarchal society, the law recognized that women had little or no power over their own lives, and could not commit adultery alone. Therefore, those who had the power, the men, had to account for their actions.

So, where is the man? At the very least, he should have been standing next to the woman for judgment. Where is he?

His place is empty and silent.

Silence is critical in both of our readings this morning.

In Bathsheba’s story, we have the silence of the victim. We also have inner silence. Nathan recounts David’s sins to the people, but leaves the King alone as he speaks; allowing him time to confront the sin within himself. As Nathan speaks, the enormity of what he has done dawns upon David like a searing light. His mountain of self-deception and willful blindness crumbles into nothingness. He stands completely revealed, defenseless, naked, guilty, before God and the people. In that inner silence he finds the truth, crying out in his mind “Oh God, what have I done?!”

Only then does he admit his sin; and in doing so, he admits he has demolished the foundation of his legitimacy as a ruler. He betrayed the trust of his people and his God. And, Nathan foretells that the consequences of this will trouble him, his Kingdom, and his descendants for many years to come.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1653) by Nicolas Poussin
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1653) by Nicolas Poussin

Ten centuries later, Jesus speaks just a few words to spark that same inner confrontation in the hearts of those accusers. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

In this passage, the use of silence by Jesus is obvious: The accusers drag the woman before him and demand he judge her. In response, he silently bends down and draws in the dirt: a seemingly random act that creates a space in which the accusers can only look at themselves. While he ignores them, and like Nathan’s words did within David, Jesus’ words grow in the hearts of the accusers.

Jesus knew they had to be given time to be confronted within themselves. They needed to be given space to realize that by throwing the first stone they would be admitting to either not knowing the Law or misusing it. The needed to remember, as David did, that the Law was a power for which they were only custodians. It was not a tool to serve their own ends.

They were not Nathan, as they had imagined. They were David: misusing the law, hiding inconvenient facts, seeking to engineer a murder to serve their own selfish purposes. In Jesus’ silence, they remember that the guilty in Bathsheba’s story were those who misused their power for personal gain.

One by one, as they came to this realization, they turned away. When all had left, Jesus straightened up from drawing in the sand and asked “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, sir.”

…Why do her words matter?

I can think of two reasons. First, Jesus encourages her to speak, and she does. She speaks for herself, perhaps for the first time, and is heard. This is unlike Bathsheba, who was not given a chance to be heard at all.

Second, Jesus then says “Neither do I condemn you.” He did not say “You are forgiven.” He is refusing to judge her. The only conviction she will experience is in her own inner silence, where she must confront the truth for herself, as David did.

And then comes the crucial moment in the story. Jesus says “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” She may have sinned, but he does not condemn her, and then empowers her. She is no longer a possession, no longer an object for others to use as they see fit. She is invited to take responsibility for herself, and “go her own way”. It is now up to her as to whether she will sin, or not.

No longer being the silent victim means both no longer being silent, and no longer being the victim. Jesus gives her the power to lead the life she chooses, not the life chosen for her.

In both of these stories we see power, we see silence, and we see truth born of silence – of inner silence being given a chance to provide witness to (and conviction of) the truth. This is at the heart of why we make space for silence in our times of worship and prayer.

But, there is also the silence of oppression in both stories. David faces justice for his crimes, and the community – by virtue of that public forum, is witness to them, and to the need for justice for Bathsheba; but ultimately, she is left under the responsibility of her oppressor: her voice, her choice, are never heard by anyone in that story.

In the case of the adulterous woman, the community cannot be the guarantor of justice, as is the ancient precedent (and as we saw in Bathsheba’s case) because the community (represented by its leaders) was the oppressor, and they were convicted, then dismissed. Who then is left to give witness to her judgment? Only Jesus. And he does not judge her. Instead he invites her to speak on her own behalf, then to make a choice, taking responsibility for herself. Her fate is no longer tied to the will or the fate of her oppressors. She is free.

Silence is important to our faith in many ways. I ask that we give thanks for the quiet power of God; working within us and all around us; and that we leave space for it to work in the silence of our hearts, and in the hearts of those around us. But at the same time, may we never allow silence to cover the sins and oppression that trouble the lives of so many; the kind of silence that must be broken if God’s justice is to prevail.

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, August 2, 2015

Sermon Audio:

Scripture readings:
    Excerpts from 2 Samuel 11:2-12:7 (The story of David & Bathsheba)
    John 7:40-8:11 (The Story of the Adulterous Woman)

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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