When Good People Do Bad Things

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 25, 2021
2 Samuel 11:1-15

    Our daughter Erin is really starting to read, which is exciting to experience as a parent, and she has started reading Magic Treehouse chapter books.  The basic storyline, if you are not familiar with the series, is that a girl and a boy are able to travel through time by going to a magic treehouse to meet famous historical characters and discover secrets to happiness.  They have a special wand they can use to do magic, but there are some rules in using the wand.  They can only use the wand to do magic for good, and furthermore, the wand can only be used to help others, not yourself.
In looking at the stories of King David this summer so far, we have seen how he was a great king, and used his power for good.  Today, we get the disappointing and somewhat shocking story of what goes wrong when even a good person like King David misuses their power for selfish purposes. When we wrestle with the problem of evil, often the first question we ask is something like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Today’s passage from 2 Samuel asks a little different question: “Why do good people do bad things?”  Why do good people do bad things?   
When Bill Cosby turned up in the news a few years ago with multiple accusations of sexual assault, I was pretty upset about it.  I grew up watching The Cosby Show with my dad.  He was in all the Jell-O commercials!  How could a funny, sweet guy like that do something so awful, repeatedly, to multiple women?  The Cosby case in my memory at least was the beginning of the MeToo movement, where we started to hear about more and more people using their power over others:  Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, to name just a few.  From multiple presidents in our history to widespread clergy abuse, the story of David and Bathsheba sounds sadly very familiar.  People in power, often men, abuse and misuse their power.  And yet, we still today talk about King David as one of the greatest kings ever to have lived, a good guy, and for the most part, faithful servant of God.  Here, we sadly see David’s selfish choices spiraling out of control – he breaks the magic wand rule and thinks only of himself, not of how his actions will affect and even destroy others.
    This story in my thinking is one of the most powerful passages of scripture that demonstrates that holy scripture is true.  Because the writers of this passage who loved David so much have the courage to tell the truth about the worst of what David did, not just the good parts as you might expect someone writing a story about a famous hero would.  The Bible portrays many people as complex people capable of both good and evil – just look at the disciples, Peter, who is the rock on which Christ founds the church but also the one who denies Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion! But let’s recap David’s sins in this short chapter:  First, David stays home literally sitting on his couch while Joab and his officers fight his battles for him – it was the time when kings were supposed to be on the battlefield with their men.  Then, David spies on Bathsheba, sends for her, and lays with her, knowingly committing adultery.  Then when what he thought would be a one-night stand turns out to get more complicated with Bathsheba’s pregnancy.  Rather than stopping to admit his guilt and take responsibility for his bad choices, David goes even further.  He tries to get Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up the affair but Uriah (a foreign Hittite by the way) is faithful to the king and to the Lord.  He won’t enjoy being with his wife while his fellow soldiers are on the battlefield.  So David commits premeditated murder, making sure Uriah is killed in the next battle.  By the way, if you read further, other innocent soldiers are killed alongside Uriah to help with David’s coverup, if things weren’t bad enough.
    Who else writes down this litany of horrific sins committed by their hero?  The only people I can come close to thinking of are tragic Shakespearean characters like King Lear or Hamlet!  This is the worst of David’s reign, and he will never fully recover. We see how when good people like David do bad things, it doesn’t just hurt their personal reputation, their sins damage trust between the people and their king, even trust in God.  And where is God in this passage, anyway?  What can we learn from David’s story?  
    The primary lesson is the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Power, our Magic Treehouse friends remind us, should be used for good to benefit others, and the more power we have, the more tempting it is to use it for selfish gain without thinking about how it affects others.  In contrast to Uriah, David forgets his loyalty to God and that his power comes from God.  The second lesson is that none of us are neither above the law nor free from sin.  We take time to confess our sins before God and sing the Kyrie regularly in worship not as a giant guilt trip, but as a reality check – as 1 John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  It is so easy to look at someone else’s situation and proudly think, “Well, I’d never do THAT.”  Or we may truly think we are “good enough” or a “pretty good person.”  David was a good person, he was a faithful person and he STILL royally messed up.  The minute we start to think we have everything together and we’re holier than thou is the minute we start to stumble…and God help us from stumbling as epically as David does!  Our sins, our selfish choices, should point us back to Christ, to our need for a savior.
    The story of David’s one-night-stand-gone-wrong with Bathsheba is a dark story of what even good people are capable of.  Martin Luther frequently talked about the concept of every human being as a “saint-sinner.”  What he meant was, we are all capable of good and evil. As sinners, we have all sinned and are in need of forgiveness.  What we will see next week, and this week makes our first reading a bit of a cliff-hanger, is that we are also created by God for good and claimed by God to be citizens of heaven and saints through our faith in Christ!  God offers even the worst of sinners a chance for redemption.  
    So, let’s turn to our gospel for today to end on a more uplifting note.  John tells us that the people want to “take Jesus by force to make him king,” but Jesus denies seeking worldly power, in contrast to David. Instead, we see Jesus using his God-given power for good:  healing the sick.  Feeding everyone so that they are satisfied. Calming the storm and the disciples’ fears.  Jesus takes the little people have, the five loaves and two fish, and makes sure all are taken care of.  Jesus takes the little good we have to offer and turns it into a greater good!  After Jesus feeding the five thousand in John’s gospel, once again, we see the disciples out on a boat, in a storm, out of control, terrified.  And once again, Jesus comes to them, tells them not to be afraid, and gets them to where they need to be going.  The disciples are stuck, and their fear paralyzes them from thinking of anything but saving themselves in that moment.  Jesus gets them out of the boat to continue to move forward in faith, to use God’s power working in them for good and for the sake of those in need.  Our faith in Christ helps us use our God-given power for good, rather than abuse our power.  But even more basically than that, when we feel out of control or at least are tempted to do something we know isn’t right, we place our confidence in the truth that Jesus can save us when we cannot save ourselves.  Whether we’re mired in sin or feeling like the victim, Christ saves.  Christ comes to save the powerful and the powerless.  Christ comes to offer a different vision where abuse of any kind is not only not tolerated, but no longer possible, because God’s love is that powerful. We gather around Christ’s table to receive the bread of life that only he can give – as equals, as equally sinners in need of a savior and saints who belong to the kingdom of God.  The “magic” so to speak, of the holy meal of communion is the power of Christ living in us: Christ’s body and blood giving us the right kind of power to turn from evil and toward sharing the good news with others.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.