Courage, Brothers and Sisters
The two main sections of the Bible are complementary. It is not only that they are broadly an historical account in sequence, with the Old Testament dealing with events leading up to the birth of Jesus, and the New Testament with the birth, life and aftermath of his death, but it is the contents and style which I find fascinating. If the New Testament is where a philosophy of life is developed, then the Old Testament is a chronicle of human emotions, frailties and, occasionally, human grandeur.
I am struck when reading many of the Old Testament stories how the basic character and instincts of the human beings remain constant, regardless of geography or the passage of time.
The passions that led Cain to murder his brother Abel are recognisable still today; the devotion and love of Ruth for Naomi is mirrored by others in our generation. The rages of Saul, the envy by Esau of his brother Jacob, or the doleful comfort given to Job by his visitors are easily comprehended by contemporary readers. The whole range of human emotions found in the evergreen story of Joseph and his family help the account to be one of the best known and loved of the Old Testament stories.
But among the many, a story which sticks in my mind is the narrative of David the King, Nathan the Prophet and Bath-sheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.
Let me just remind you of the outline of the story.
David was attracted to Bath-sheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah, seduced her, and then plotted to eliminate her husband. In its basic form, a familiar story down the ages, a staple ingredient of stories in the tabloid press. Uriah, a brave warrior in David’s army, was, on David’s instructions, posted to a place on the battlefield where the fighting would be fiercest. During the battle, his companions, by previous arrangement, were ordered to retreat. Inevitably, as David had intended, Uriah was killed. David expressed surprise and sorrow at the tragedy.
David, though morally guilty, could show clean hands. He had been far from the battlefield. Possibly one of the earliest examples of that favourite theme of the writer of detective fiction, the perfect crime. After a suitable period of mourning, David married Uriah’s widow, Bath-sheba.
But that is not the aspect of the story which makes it memorable for me. The crux is found in the sequel, when Nathan the Prophet becomes involved. Nathan came to David with what he insisted was a true story, illustrated by parable.
Nathan’s tale concerned two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds, whilst the poor man had but one lamb. When a visitor came to the rich man and had to be fed and entertained, he who was rich with a large number of sheep, instead of killing one of own flock for the feast, took instead the poor man’s lamb, slaughtering it for the table.
David was furious at the injustice, and swore that this evil man should be punished. “Tell me where this rogue shall be found”, he demanded. “Thou art the man”, responded Nathan.
What sticks in my memory about this tale is the courage of Nathan. Here was an all-powerful King, ruthless, as he had proved, in his determination to satisfy his own needs, even if this involved taking the life of those who stood in his way. And Nathan had the courage to confront him, condemning his actions. As the New English version of the Beatitudes puts it, “How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail”.
The easy path is ever that of letting wrong go unchallenged. The truly courageous are those who speak out for that which is right, at the cost often of personal unpopularity, of public ridicule, or even, as with Nathan, with life itself at stake. Down the ages, many have paid for their courage with their lives, others with their liberty. Many continue to do so.
David accepted Nathan’s rebuke and the humiliation involved, which of course says something about David. But Nathan was not to know in advance what the conclusion would be, yet he spoke out.
To say what is right, to “hold fast to that which is true” was, and is, the hallmark of real heroism.
A large number of brave men and women who have held fast to the truth, like Nathan, have their names recorded in history. Many, many more, equally firm and brave, do not. But whether famous or unknown, heralded or humbly anonymous, they are the valiant, the truly courageous. Freedom to worship, to publish, to differ, to speak openly, to travel widely, is neither won nor retained without the Nathans of the world.
We worship without persecution here in this place today because many unrecorded men and women in their time said to their oppressors the equivalent of “Thou art the man”. “You”, they steadfastly accused, “are the ones who destroy freedom, who persecute, who oppress, who deny the truth and affirm the false”.
Yet the dramatic situation illustrated by Nathan’s denunciation is not one in which most of us are ever involved. Though millions have been persecuted down the ages, and continue to be so treated today throughout the world, most of us will never be in such a life or death dilemma. But we are often in situations of less drama, but of crucial importance to freedom.
The safest and easiest course that Nathan could have taken is one of selective blindness and deafness. Not to notice, not to hear, is a cosy option. You get on with your life, and I will get on with mine.
Nathan chose not to take the easy path, because wrong-doing should be condemned however powerful the wrongdoer. The freedom of the subject was no less important than the freedom accorded to the King.
In our own times, and within our land, the threat to freedom for the individual habitually comes in more subtle ways than it did for Uriah. Individuals are denigrated by prejudice, races by bigotry, different ethnic or cultural groups by intolerance. All Irish are stupid, all Jews are money grabbers, all blacks are criminals, all foreigners are promiscuous, the list of narrow-minded, parochial opinion is endless.
Temporary blindness and feigned hardness of hearing enables the dogmatist and the bigot to spread his or her evil doctrine. The successors of Nathan must show a little of his courage in challenging the perpetrators. Occasions and opportunities are not lacking. To abuse the cultural or ethnic minority, is to erode their freedom, to deny their rights.
We are used to saying that we live in a free country, and so we do, compared with many who groan under tyrannical oppression. But not all enjoy the freedom they ought. That we are all children of God, a God who values us equally, is a central theme of Christian faith. Well, God may accept us as equal, but men and women do not invariably practice the faith they profess. Examples are legion and commonplace.
The stirring up of racial hatred, the denigration of ethnic groups, the sneering intolerance, implicit or implied, towards minority cultures is not only distasteful, but wicked. “Thou art the man”, said Nathan without fear. The phrase, adapted, is still necessary today.
The child who is abused, the prisoner who is maltreated, the mentally ill or mentally handicapped who are ill-treated, the homeless who are disregarded, the child of immigrant parents who is discriminated against in the employment market, enjoy little of the freedom of which we boast. Their restricted freedom is the shame of all of us, if we are deliberately silent in the knowledge of wrong. We must have the courage to condemn.
But there is another lesson from the story of David and Nathan the Prophet which ought to be mentioned before we conclude. That is the response of David to Nathan’s rebuke.
As I said at the beginning, David showed remorse and did not seek to justify the indefensible. A natural response when our actions are questioned is to seek to excuse, to become defensive. And on occasion that is right. Not all accusations are justified; mistakes may be made, or actions misinterpreted. But David knew in his heart he was wrong, and admitted it, and was ashamed.
In his turn David showed courage, albeit of a different kind to Nathan’s. To be able to say, “Thou art the man (or woman)” to oneself is also an act of bravery. All the accusations in the world will not make a better, freer society if error or wrong-doing is not accepted by the perpetrator. The guilty is not invariably the other person. We ourselves can and do trespass.
“Courage, brother! do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble; –
Trust in God, and do the right.
So we sometimes sing in our worship. Speaking out for the right, accepting the truth when we are wrong, are both acts of fortitude.
Throughout history it is the soldier who is seen as the epitome of courage, though I’m not sure that is always true. Nevertheless, the martial image is one that is often attached to the Christian believer, so whether or not we see ourselves as soldiers, let us at least take on the mantle of resolution, that we may be as valiant as Nathan, and as courageous as David in accepting the truth.
C.J. Rosling 21 March 1992
Fulwood 22 March 1992
Mexborough 14 June 1992
Chesterfield 5 July 1992
Hucklow 12 July 1992, 6 July 1997, 23 Nov 2003
Mexborough 10 July 1994