2 Sam 11:1-15
2 Kgs 4:42-44
by Maranda St John Nicolle, Director of Christian Concern for One World, Diocese of Oxford
How are we called to live?
For Christians, this is about more than just ‘us’ – it’s a question of how we live in right relationship with God, each other and the rest of the created order. Some Christians have found it helpful to envisage these relationships as forming a triangle (see Chris Wright’s work, cited below). This can help us to visualise the truth that if all three relationships are flourishing, there is harmony, but if one relationship suffers, the others, too, are distorted.
God is at the apex of the triangle, and our relationship with God is at the centre of our lives. In Psalm 14, we are shown a picture of what can happen when an individual rejects this relationship entirely. Turning away from the source of life leads to a rejection of life-giving relationships with others. The individual and society lose their moral compass, and greed and exploitation of the vulnerable become the order of the day. The plans of the poor are frustrated and God’s people are ‘eaten up’.
In our world today, we can think of many instances in which greed and exploitation occur, and people’s relationships with each other and our common home are distorted. We might, for example, think of occasions where the ‘plans of the poor’ are confounded by people’s displacement from their land in favour of powerful economic interests … or fragile environments are jeopardised by projects seeking to increase the extraction of fossil fuels. Nor is this simply a problem caused by ‘other people’– all too often we are ourselves complicit in the exploitation, not by personally doing violence to other people, but because we aren’t prepared to look too closely at the ways in which our patterns of consumption result in damage to others.
For those who are vulnerable, it may seem as if there is little recourse – the perils for environmental defenders, for example, are many.
But there is hope – hope in God’s promise to “restore the fortunes” of God’s people.
As Christians, we are called to hold that hope. More than that, we are called to live as people who have been given the immeasurable gifts of God – and to offer hope to others.
God’s gifts include the riches of creation, which God pours forth abundantly.
But they include more than that – we are also the people whom God feeds with the spiritual ‘bread of life’. By God’s grace, we are offered the closest of relationships – “ to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”
In contrast to the ways that abandoning the relationship with God led to harm in other relationships, as we draw closer in relationship with God, we are empowered to live in a way ‘worthy of our calling’. This way is a way of humility – not seeking to be more than we really are or to ask for more than our fair share of the earth’s resources. It’s a way of gentleness with each other and with all the created order, which, like us, has been reconciled to God in Christ.
In this lies wisdom, and hope for our communities and our common home.
Sometimes, though, the kind of relationship that the author of Ephesians prays Christians may know can feel far away. Perhaps it’s an internal thing: we feel inadequate and can’t see why or how God would want to have anything to do with us. Though we seek to follow God, we may have doubts that we can be of much use. When we feel this way, it can be helpful to have texts like today’s Gospel, which reminds us that in God’s hands, whatever we offer can be multiplied, by God’s grace, to become life-giving and a blessing to us and to others.
Sometimes, as well, we may find ourselves in hard places because of what is going on around us – as the disciples found themselves on a stormy sea. The climate and environmental crisis may feel overwhelming; the forces of injustice may feel too powerful. And we wonder: where is God now? At such times, it is helpful to have the Gospel’s picture of Christ with us in the storm, coming alongside us. We may not always be able to perceive or recognise God’s presence, but we have Christ’s promise that He will be with us always. We can trust in that, and ask God to help us to grow in knowledge and love of Christ, and to live out our calling.
Notes on Individual Readings
2 Samuel 11: 1 -15
King David is at home while his armies fight, and as he wanders one evening, he sees Bathsheba. When he sends to find out who she is, the answer comes back that she is the wife of Uriah, one of his ‘thirty’ – his leading warriors – and daughter of another of the ‘thirty’, Eliam.[i] With the warriors away, David sends for Bathsheba – this is a royal command, not an invitation – and sleeps with her. His is a sinful act and a betrayal in every direction: of God, whose laws he has broken; of Bathsheba (this is abuse, not adultery – Nathan, in the next chapter, will compare her to a slaughtered lamb)[ii]; and of his relationship with his warriors, who are fighting for him even as he commits an act of sexual violence against their wife/daughter.
When Bathsheba sends word that she is pregnant, David calls Uriah home, under the pretence of wanting news, and urges him to sleep with his wife (“wash your feet” is a euphemism). But Uriah, whose name means “Yahweh is light”, is loyal to his consecration as a warrior, which prohibits him from engaging in sexual activity while fighting is ongoing.[iii] David sends him ‘a present’ – a gift that denotes favour, a salient irony. He gets him drunk in an attempt to wear down his defences – but to no avail. The upright Uriah is not going to play the role that David has laid out for him. So, in the final betrayal, David uses Uriah himself to send a note calling on Joab to ensure that the Hittite is killed in battle. Joab obeys – and in the portion of the chapter omitted by the lectionary (11:16-25), we learn that he commands a risky operation in which not only Uriah, but also other soldiers, die.
Responding to the text
Hearing about David’s rape of Bathsheba may be difficult for members of a congregation, especially those with experience of sexual violence. As such, if you are using this passage, you may wish to focus on the issues the passage raises, so as not to seem to minimise them.
It would also be possible to ask people to reflect on the ways in which the sins that underlie the violence in the passage – covetousness and the abuse of power – manifest themselves in many of the myriad ways in which individuals and societies do violence to people and our common home.
This was a popular psalm: indeed, there are two versions of it in the Book of Psalms – this one and Psalm 53, which is probably later in origin.[iv]
In relatively few verses, the Psalm does three main things. It points, in the tradition of wisdom literature, to the evil that follows when individuals and societies abandon wisdom (based on honouring God) for folly (turning from God). It reminds us, in the tradition of the prophets, that God’s righteousness and authority mean that evil will, ultimately, have consequences. And it expresses a people’s longing for deliverance. [v]
The focal point is initially “the fool” who has “said in his heart there is no God.” According to commentator Derek Kidner, the Hebrew word used for fool – ‘nabal’ – is a particularly strong one and the statement “there is no God” is seen elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as, among other things, “an irresponsible gesture of defiance … a gamble against moral sanctions … and impatience of authority.”[vi] The fool’s choice is an internal decision which shows itself in external sinfulness – a life of deeds that are ‘abominable’ to God and destructive of others.
But the issue is not limited to particular individuals. When the Lord surveys humanity to see if any are wise and seeking God, evil is seen as having affected all of society. “They have all gone astray; they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” or, as the Anchor Bible translates it, “Each one is stubborn; together they are depraved.”[vii]
How does this wider turning from God manifest itself in society? In two things – a disregard for God (the evildoers ‘do not call upon the Lord’) and sins against God’s people, especially the most vulnerable (they ‘eat up my people as they eat bread’ and ‘confound the plans of the poor’). These things are wrong – but they are also folly, for God is on the side of the ‘company of the righteous’ and is the refuge of the poor. In the end, as prophets throughout the Hebrew scripture proclaimed, God’s authority will be asserted, and the evildoers “shall be in great terror”[viii]
In the final verse, the perspective shifts from God’s overview of the world to the vision of those who are waiting for God to restore them: ‘O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!’ Unlike the fool, God’s people are marked by faith and hope: “When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.”[ix]
Responding to the text
The theologian Chris Wright has suggested an ethics based on right relationship between God, people and the land.[x] Each of these relationships affects the other, so when the relationship with God is broken, relationships with other human beings and the land also suffer.
- Where, in our own lives and in our societies, do we see a turning from God? How is that lived out in the ways we, individually and as societies, mistreat vulnerable people and environments? We might, for example, think of occasions where the ‘plans of the poor’ are confounded by people’s displacement from their land in favour of powerful economic interests … or fragile environments are jeopardised by projects seeking to increase the extraction of fossil fuels, which are themselves a threat to the climate.
- What are the potential consequences of our society’s folly?
- How can we, as a people, live rightly … and be marked by hope of God’s deliverance for all creation?
- How does this Psalm give hope to the oppressed, and to the earth itself?
Ephesians 3: 14-21 or 4:1-6
For those who have started with 2 Samuel and Psalm 14, what a contrast! We move from portrayals of sin and folly to two stunning passages from Ephesians that reveal the wonders of God’s saving work.
Ephesians 3:14-21 is breathtaking – a passionate and intense prayer that is magnificent in its scope. The author has explained earlier in the letter how God has, by grace, extended salvation to both Jews and Gentiles through Christ’s reconciling work. Now he prays for the believers to be strengthened in their inner being – their very core – by the power of the Spirit, and for Christ to dwell in their hearts through faith. This indwelling is to be an ongoing relationship – the verb used for ‘dwell’, ‘katoikein’, has the sense of entering and abiding with someone.[xi] The author prays that it will mean believers are so ‘rooted and grounded in love’ that they may come to ‘know’ – though paradoxically it surpasses all knowledge – the extent of Christ’s love, and thus be filled with nothing less than the fullness of God.
How can one even imagine such a thing? Praying it leads the author to praise of God, the only one whose power can “accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine”. To God, the author says, be glory – a glory seen in the church, the body of believers called to be one in Christ Jesus, as well as in Christ Jesus himself.[xii]
In Psalm 14, we saw how an interior denial of God led to an external life of corruption; conversely, in Ephesians 4, Paul begins to explore how those in whom Christ dwells by faith are to live “a life worthy of the calling.” They are to be marked in their daily walk by the qualities of humility or lowliness – a very countercultural concept, then as now; gentleness or meekness; and patience.[xiii] These are not calls for abject submissiveness, but for a people filled with the love and power of God, conscious of being saved by grace, to be aware of their own sinfulness and what they have been forgiven, and hence to be gentle and patient with others. They are to bear with one another, based on the love that roots and grounds them, and to strive to “maintain unity in the Spirit, in the bond of peace.” In so doing, they are recognising a fundamental truth: there is “one body … one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Responding to the text
What a gift! What a calling! It’s worth taking time simply to rest in the author’s prayer, giving thanks and praise to God, and then, like the author, working through the practical implications of how we live in response to God’s gift.
- Are we taking enough time to return to the source of our being? What in our lives – as they relate to our relationships with God, each other, and the whole created order – reflects our rootedness in love? What has other roots, and needs to go?
- Taking these verses in conjunction with the passage in Colossians (1:19-20), which describes God as being “pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things,” what kind of behaviour are we called to exhibit towards other created beings, who like us, have been reconciled with God through Christ?
- As Christians, we have often thought about the virtues of humility/lowliness, gentleness/meekness and patience as they relate to our relationships with God and others – what might those virtues look like in our relationships with the wider creation? How might they challenge humanity’s tendency to exploit nature, without regard for each being’s inherent worth?
John 6: 1-21 (alongside 2 Kings 4:42-44 and Psalm 145)
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is one of the most familiar in the Gospels – indeed, it’s the only one of Jesus’ miracles to appear in all four Gospels. John’s account is very similar to Mark’s (Mark 6:30-44) and like Mark’s and Matthew’s goes on to describe the disciples’ subsequent journey by boat and Jesus’ walking on water to meet them.
Jesus’ miracle of feeding harks back to the prophets. The reference to an outsider bringing barley loaves calls to mind the reading from 2 Kings in which Elisha miraculously feeds a hundred people with twenty loaves that “a man from Baal-shalishah” has brought as an offering. Christ’s use of far fewer loaves offered by a young boy to feed far more people emphasises that he is even greater than those who went before – and that God can make wonderful things happen from even the smallest and most unprepossessing of offerings!
More generally, the provision of physical food in abundance was something that was seen throughout the Hebrew Bible as an attribute of God’s power and goodness. Psalm 145 tells us “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.”
But there is even more going on here: John adds a strong emphasis on Christ as the ‘bread of life’ – the spiritual manna that will feed the people of God – and references throughout the story call to mind both the story of the Passover and Exodus and the forthcoming giving of Christ’s body in the Eucharist.[xiv]
In John, Mark and Matthew, Christ’s self-revelation through the multiplication of loaves is followed by a further revelation, as he walks on water. The disciples, we are told in John’s Gospel, are on a rough sea when Jesus appears alongside them. They are frightened – but he reassures them with the phrase “Ego eimi”. This can simply be translated “It is I” – but it can be also translated “I am” and has a deeper resonance in Jewish culture, where “I am” is a name for God … a resonance that is echoed in the “I am” statements throughout John’s Gospel.[xv] In this case, the phrase is followed with reassurance: “Do not be afraid” The disciples take Jesus into the boat “and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Might there, as some commentators suggest, be another Passover reference here, as the sea yields to God’s power, and the disciples quickly reach the desired land?[xvi]
Responding to the text
Psalm 145 reminds us that the miracle of God’s provision is seen each day in the way that creation provides food:
- What does it mean for us to be reminded that food is God’s gift?
- If we think of the provision of food as something that flows from the goodness of creation, what are the implications for the way we treat agricultural land?
- If all that goes into food production springs from the free gifts of God, how do we respond to a food system which favours the wealthy and leaves many people unable to access what they need? What action can we take to fix that?
In the Gospel, Christ’s provision of bread not only satisfies physical needs but points towards his role as Messiah, who satisfies our deepest spiritual hungers and gives us the bread that will lead to eternal life.
- How can we both value what God provides for us physically and be open to the ways in which the physical can point us towards divine truths?
The prophet made 20 loaves feed one hundred people – which is remarkable enough – but Christ took a young boy’s five loaves and, by God’s power, fed 5,000, with lots of leftovers!
- We often feel, as we look at difficult situations around us and in the wider world, that our small gifts and talents can’t make a difference. How might passage help us see the value of our offerings, when they are given to Christ?
The disciples welcomed Christ into the boat – and passed through the stormy seas to arrive at their destination.
- Where do we see Christ walking towards us today? How can that help us as we navigate life’s storms?
by Maranda St John Nicolle, Oxford
[i] Both are mentioned in 2 Samuel 23:34 and 39
[ii] The nature of David’s actions towards Bathsheba has been much discussed. See, for example, Jennifer Andruska, “’Rape’ in the Syntax of 2 Samuel 11:4” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft vol 129:1 (2017), pp. 103-109. For some other current discussions, see Tamie Davis, “Why David and Bathsheba is not about adultery” https://www.fixinghereyes.org/single-post/2018/09/15/Why-David-and-Bathsheba-is-not-about-adultery and Russell L Meek, “David raped Bathsheba, and why that matters” https://religionnews.com/2019/11/01/david-raped-bathsheba-and-why-that-matters/
[iii] Rev A R S Kennedy, Samuel, The Century Bible, pp 240-243.
[iv] Peter C Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 19 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 146
[v] For a discussion of the placement of the Psalm in the traditions of wisdom literature, prophecy and lament, see above, pp 145-6.
[vi] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An introduction and commentary on books I and II of the Psalms (London: IVP, 1973), p.79
[vii] Mitchell Dahood translator, Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), p. 80.
[viii] Kidner, op cit, pp. 79 and 80 and Craigie, op cit, pp. 145-149 for a further discussion of these themes.
[ix] As above
[x] An interesting online discussion of Wright’s work and his themes can be found in David Baer’s “Israel’s position: Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (2004)”: https://canterbridge.org/2018/10/12/israels-position-christopher-j-h-wright-old-testament-ethics-for-the-people-of-god-2004/.
[xi] Francis Foulkes, Ephesians, Tyndale New Testament Bible Commentaries, rev ed (Leicester:IVP, 1989), p. 111.
[xii] This placing of the Church, the body of believers, alongside Jesus is itself quite a remarkable statement, which reinforces the importance that the Pauline tradition places on the unity of the Body of Christ with Jesus, its head.
[xiii] Ibid, pp. 116-118
[xiv] John alone mentions that the miracle takes place around the time of Passover, calling to mind both the history of the Jewish people in the Exodus and the final Passover meal before the Crucifixion, as noted by numerous commentators. Provided with five loaves and two fish Christ takes the loaves and gives thanks (eucharistēsas) before distributing them, a description of words and actions that echoes the institution of the Lord’s supper – see, for example, Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John, The New Century Bible Commentary ( (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1972), p. 242 and Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol 1, The Anchor Bible (London: Chapman, 1971), pp. 245-250. In his discussion, Raymond Brown also points out the similarity between Jesus’ command “Gather up the fragments that are left over so that nothing will perish” and an early Eucharistic prayer over the bread: “As this fragmented bread was scattered on the mountains but was gathered up and became one, so let the Church be gathered up from the four corners of the earth into your Kingdom.”
[xv] Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol 1, p.254
[xvi] Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol 1, pp 255-56