Today we’ve had three surprising stories, not from East Anglia, but from the Bible.
There’s the Old Testament story of Absalom, David’s son, who was leading insurgents against David, his father. Why was he fighting his father? Was he just a nasty piece of work? Well, no. There’s quite a story behind it.
Tamar, one of David's daughters, was raped by her half-brother, Amnon, David's eldest son. David was told of the offence, but chose to ignore it because of his love for his son, Amnon. It's easy to throw up our hands in horror at this point and condemn David for failing to support Tamar and suitably punishing Amnon, but tough love is difficult. The sort of indulgent love which closes its eyes to all faults because it's easier not to face them, is probably a temptation for most human beings. David succumbed to that temptation and his failure to act had disastrous results.
Absalom was close to his sister Tamar and deeply angered and upset by his half-brother Amnon's actions. He remained angry and upset for two years, brooding over the wrong done to Tamar and his father’s failure to seek justice for her, then he ordered Amnon to be killed. After this, Absalom went into hiding for three years and it seems he was never able to forgive his father for failing to denounce Amnon's crime against Tamar, for Absalom rebelled against David and began to plot against his life.
Soon there was open warfare between David's followers and Absalom's followers, but David still had feelings for his son for he ordered his troops to "deal gently with the young man Absalom." But they didn’t.
Absalom was suddenly confronted in battle by David's troops. As Absalom fled, his head caught in the low lying branches of an oak tree and he was left hanging while his horse charged onwards. Horrific story! But it gets worse. Absalom was quickly surrounded by David's troops who took no notice of David’s words, but immediately killed Absalom with their swords.
The result, of course, was that Absalom's troops were defeated and the throne was retained by David with resulting stability for the country. David’s reign was the most stable period in Jewish history.
But the story doesn't end there, for we're given a moving insight into David's anguish and grief at the loss of another son, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
It seems as though David’s love for his son was undiminished, even though Absalom had murdered Amnon, his own brother and plotted against David and tried to kill him.
Love is not superficial sentimentality but is tough and must sometimes be uncompromising. Early in the story David failed to show that love either towards Amnon or towards Tamar, because it isn't so easy to identify love within things that hurt. But David matured and grew, so that later he was able to go on loving Absalom no matter what he had done. Absalom was never able do that. He couldn’t forgive or forget and tragedy was the result of his failure to love.
Jesus knew all about tough love. In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel he warns that he hasn't come to bring peace but a sword, and that following him may well cause irreparable rifts between different members of the same family. And he tells us that we must take up our cross if we are to follow him.
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