Room in a Father’s Heart

Monday, August 12, 2013 — Week of Proper 14, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 978)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) // 89:19-52 (evening)

2 Samuel 13:23-39

Acts 20:17-38

Mark 9:42-50

Is there room in the Father’s heart for all of his children? Today’s first reading shows David struggling with this divine question in the context of his painfully human family. His story reveals to us the capacity of the human heart to contradict itself, but also to exhibit the unaccountable love of God.

On the one hand, there can’t be room in David’s heart for both Amnon and Tamar. When David heard about Amnon’s assault of Tamar, he “became angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” David’s “love” only has room for Amnon. By refraining from punishing Amnon, David refuses to defend Tamar. And ironically, David leaves Amnon himself vulnerable to revenge.

When the human heart exposes its limited capacity by assigning space based on privileges, such as birth-order or gender, the human family unravels. Since his father will not impose justice, Absalom takes his sister’s cause into his own hands. He arranges a feast and invites all of his brothers—all the king’s sons—to join him. When Amnon’s heart is “merry with wine,” Absalom orders his servants to kill him.

In the conflict between two of his sons, David explores a new capacity in his heart. Can there be room for both the aggressor and the victim? At the end of today’s passage, we read that “the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon.” Although David grieves completely for Amnon, David still seeks a way to reintegrate Absalom into his family.

To understand how David could hold both Amnon and Absalom, we need to examine the paradoxical logic of his heart. First, each son occupies David’s whole heart, and not just one compartment. Second, David’s heart can always make more room.

A strange set of verses from today’s passage suggests that fathers can portion out their love for their children. A faulty report reaches David that all of his sons have been killed by Absalom, and he expresses his grief immediately by tearing his garments and laying on the ground. But David’s nephew Jonadab corrects the news report. He encourages his uncle not to “take it to heart, as if all the king’s sons were dead; for Amnon alone is dead.” But . . . would David’s grief really have lessened proportionally upon learning that only one of his sons is dead? Somehow I doubt that. Although more of his sons were alive, his grief probably stayed the same size. Each son takes up the whole heart.

Yet grief is not the last word in David’s family. When his first son with Bathsheba was dying, David fasted and wept. After his death, though, David “rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes” (2 Sam 12:20). He also worshiped the Lord and ate. He consoled his wife, and eventually had another son, Solomon.

David’s heart is full of limitations and contradictions, and his story exposes those limits and contradictions in our own capacity to open our hearts. His story also reveals something of God’s own heart, which seeks to offer itself completely to each of us, to reconcile our antagonisms, and to make room for many more children.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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