Jan  2017 31
Everyone Needs a Nathan

Who is your Nathan? Better yet, who are your Nathans? From whom can you learn? From whom can you receive correction? Whom do you allow to hold up a mirror in front of your soul and invite you to look at yourself?

Nathan was the court prophet and counselor who was able to cut King David to the quick after David raped a woman and then had her husband murdered.

Nathan told the guilty king, who thought he acted in secret, about a rich man in David’s realm who had plenty of sheep himself but who, when required to provide hospitality for a traveler, stole the sole lamb (and beloved as a child) owned by a poor man and slaughtered it for the meal.

David was incensed and declared the man should die. Nathan’s reply: “You are the man.”

In this story (2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:7a), David was like the disgusting French king played by Mel Brooks in the satire/comedy, History of the World Part I. The king makes up rules for chess as he wants (“I get three moves to your one!”), his sycophant advisers declare “might makes right,” the king is unfiltered, predatory, creepy id when it comes to sex.

After doing all kinds of morally despicable things, Brooks’ king turns to us, the disgusted audience and sneers, “It’s good to be the king!”

Is that what David was thinking, “It’s good to be the king”? The writer of 2nd Samuel tells the reader quite a bit about the king’s state of mind, and the moral peril he orchestrated for himself.

David was bored (walking back and forth on his roof), he was neglecting duty (in the season when kings go off to war, David sent Joab and stayed in Jerusalem), he lusted (he saw her naked, inquired who she was, and then used his office to send for her), and had sex with her, which by today’s standards would most likely have been called rape (first meeting, power differential). To top it off, David covers a rape and resultant pregnancy by ordering a murder.

Why is mastering the impulse to hurt someone so hard? Because the impulse to justify what one wants to do is so strong. Bending reality to justify our interests is not the whole of our nature, but it is in our nature.

In the ancient and Renaissance worlds, the conflict between reason and the rest of our nature was expressed in the image of a rider (reason) trying to bridle and steer powerful horses (the passions).

In the contemporary world Chip and Dan Heath are credited with the analogy of the rider and the elephant. The elephant is the emotional and unconscious self. The rider represents reason, persuading the elephant and sometimes justifying what the elephant did. But the rider can persuade only, the rider does not control.

Ben Franklin expresses the rider’s role well: “So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

In the David-Nathan story, David is a horrible human being. Not the young man courageously battling the enemy. Not the one who soothed the anguished Saul with his lyre. Not the politically astute king remembered for centuries as the epitome of a kingship.

No, here he is all elephant and his rider made up some excuse for why it was OK to take all the dastardly actions he took. Maybe he reasoned he was the king and no one can tell the king what to do, for if the king does it, it is right.

A person in a position of power with no Nathans may be what Jungian therapists call a high chair tyrant—think toddler demanding to be fed, fidgeting to get out, throwing to the floor or wall anything they don’t like. Now imagine some adult you know who throws tantrums, doing all those high chair tyrant things.

There is an old English phrase, “cut to the quick,” with quick used as the word is in traditional English versions of the Apostles Creed, “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

To be cut to the quick is to be cut in a way that threatens your life, but it can also mean to cut through a self-delusion, a self-serving interest, a story we tell ourselves in a way that allows the reality of what we’ve done to become obvious to us.

When Nathan held up that mirror to David about the rich man stealing the beloved lamb from the man who had nothing but that lamb, Nathan’s words cut David to the quick.

Sometimes data can cut to the quick, the way that climate change data should, the way that demographic projections that challenge white privilege should.

Sometimes a powerful image can cut to the quick.

Think the firehoses and dogs turned on civil rights marchers in the 1960s (President Lyndon Johnson saw the news and knew he could now have the votes to pass the Civil Rights Act, because people would be disgusted), or the body of the little refugee child lying lifeless on a beach that, for a period of time, cut some of our nation’s elected leaders to the quick.

There is a verse I love from the hymn Amazing Grace, “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace that set me free.”

Often we think of grace as gentle, healing, a balm, something to soothe a troubled spirit.

But, in those places in our souls, in our churches, and in our society which are built on self-interest that excludes others, those places where we have twisted privilege into a birthright, in those places where we degrade others to lift ourselves up, in those places where we get self-righteous, then grace first feels like judgment, but it is grace.

In order to grow as human beings, we cannot be insufferable. We have to be vulnerable to the insight, the correction, the teaching that grace requires if God’s grace is to transform our lives.

Everyone needs a Nathan.

God save us from elected officials or chosen leaders who will suffer no Nathan.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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