Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16; Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 38
In terms of teaching theology and elucidating the Bible, I’m happy for our nation’s experience of Donald Trump. Otherwise, not so much.
The reason for my contentment is Mr. Trump’s blatant exploitation of religion and his ability to persuade so many people of faith that he is a man of God. Think of his now infamous Bible posing in front of DC’s St. John’s Church after having police clear the area of Black Lives Matter protesters.
The event clearly illustrated a perennial religious dynamic that is essential for critical thinkers to understand. I’m referring to what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “battle of the gods.”
The Battle of the Gods
The combat in question pits the God of the rich against the God of the poor. Specific to our readings on this fourth Sunday of Advent, it sets the God of Moses against the God of King David’s crime family. Yes, his crime family.
To begin with, the God of the poor set free a motley group of slaves from Egypt and instituted Moses’ order that favored them rather than their Egyptian slavers. Its “preferential option” prioritized the interests of widows, orphans, and resident non-Hebrews living in Israel. Covenant law eventually forgave the debts of impoverished Hebrews every fifty years. In the process, it disadvantaged landlords and bankers. It made no provision for reestablishing the royal class that had made the lives of slaves so miserable in Egyptian captivity.
Then about a thousand years before the birth of Yeshua, all of that changed. Israel’s upper classes decided to reinstitute an order reminiscent of Egypt. It had the rich lording power over the poor, taxing them heavily, instituting forced labor, and sending Israel’s young men to fight and die in gratuitous wars of conquest as conscripts in a standing army.
Saul was Israel’s first king. He was succeeded by King David and then by his son, Solomon. Both father and son were ruthless womanizers committed to increasing their own wealth and power at the expense of the poor. Theirs was truly a crime family masquerading as God’s beloved appointees.
Family dysfunctions included internecine murders and wars, incestuous rape (2nd Samuel 13) and lasting vendettas. David’s deathbed will and testament was worthy of any Mafia don (I Kings 2: 2-12). However, to achieve the power for which they thirsted, both David and Solomon had to convince their subjects that they were indeed men of God.
That called for fabricated visions and assurances from the divine. Both David and Solomon assisted by their court prophets and scribes enthusiastically obliged. And so, David made sure it was recorded that he was a man “after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Meanwhile, Solomon’s own court historians portrayed him as the wisest man who ever lived (I Kings 3: 11-15).
Central to the ruse was a reframing of Moses’ Sinai Covenant to favor the newly emergent royalty and their hangers-on rather than the poor. That’s what we find in this Sunday’s first reading from 2nd Samuel. There, David and his court prophet, Nathan, conspire to change the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant from the poor and oppressed to the royals. In this way, the covenant becomes not a divine promise to protect widows and orphans, but to assure a lasting dynasty for David’s crime family. Put otherwise, the Covenant of Moses was replaced by the Covenant of David.
The great prophets of Judah and Israel rebelled against such palace distortions of faith.
Some tried to work within the new system holding kings’ feet to the fire, reminding them of their obligations towards the weak and vulnerable. Others gave up on the royals and called them out for their self-serving cruelty and corruption.
The great prophets celebrated during this advent season, John the Baptist and his disciple Yeshua of Nazareth, fell into the latter category. They had no use for the royals, the temple priests, their lawyers and apologists. They reserved special abhorrence for their country’s Roman occupiers.
Evidently, Yeshua inherited all of that from his mother, Miryam. She and her husband, Yosef, gave all of their children revolutionary names (Matthew 13: 55-56). Yeshua was named after the great liberator Joshua. The evangelist called “Luke” recorded Miryam as singing a fierce revolutionary song calling for the dethronement of the rich and mighty everywhere (Luke 1: 46-55).
All of that is reflected in today’s readings. What follows are my “translations.” You can find them here to see if I got them right.
Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16: The wily King David conspired with his court prophet, Nathan to persuade their people that God was on his side. The strategy was to build a magnificent temple (actually about the size of a middling parish church today) and then to claim a well-publicized “vision.” There, according to Nathan’s testimony, David’s battlefield accomplishments would be celebrated by God himself. But even more importantly, his country’s constitution (called “The Covenant”) would be subtly changed from centering on the welfare of widows, orphans, and immigrants, to assuring that David’s crime family would stay in power forever.
Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29: The arrangement was then celebrated in song (Psalm 89) praising the goodness of God for establishing David’s throne “for all generations.”
Romans 16: 25-27: Paul’s allegiance, however, was not to any earthly king, but to what Yeshua proclaimed as the Kingdom of God. It embraced the welfare of “all nations.” Following Yeshua, Paul’s understanding re-established the pre-Davidic Covenant (favoring those widows, orphans, and immigrants) which David’s Covenant (in its hijacked form) had attempted to replace.
Luke 1: 38: Vaguely following the example of David, Luke’s early church made up a visionary tale about Yeshua’s very conception. There, the angel Gabriel secures Mary’s permission to have the Holy Spirit impregnate her. The resulting child will be great, the angel said, and (like David) initiate a kingdom to which “there will be no end.” However, Yeshua’s New Covenant would once again centralize not the royal class, but Yahweh’s beloved widows, orphans, and immigrants. As Mary would say beginning eight verses later (LK 1: 46-55), it would “take down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble.” So much for palace crime family conspiracies.
So, portraying the Trumps, or Bushes, or Clintons or Kennedys or Obamas as “crime families” is not at all far-fetched or somehow unchristian. On the contrary, insofar as any of them neglect the poor – the widows, orphans, immigrants, asylum seekers, or victims of their wars – they are just that. They’re like the criminal family of David and Solomon.
Yes, they go to church, invoke God’s blessings on America at the end of every formal speech, and even attend “prayer breakfasts.” But like David and Solomon (and most of the kings portrayed in the Bible), they are really in bed with the rich and powerful, with the bankers and corporate heads, and with compliant pastors, priests and court prophet equivalents. At best, they are completely disinterested in the spiritual descendants of Egypt’s slaves. At worst, they are actual enemies of workers, widows, orphans, immigrants as well as of those who side with the unemployed, houseless, and those without medical care.
In summary, this fourth Sunday of Advent provides a stark reminder to critical thinking people of faith. It tells us not to be seduced by Bible-waving presidents or by pastors who endorse them and their God of the rich.
Neither Yeshua whose birthday we are about to celebrate nor his cousin John nor his revolutionary mother had anything to do with that God. Before him, they were all complete atheists. So should we be.
Their God was the God of Moses, not of David. Their God was precisely the one rejected by the rich and the powerful – the One who Miryam said “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble,” who “fills the hungry with good things, while the rich he sends empty away” (Luke 1: 53).