In his confrontation with King David in 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan tells a heart-rending story of a rich man who, rather than give up one of his own flock to feed a hungry traveler, takes away the single and much-loved lamb of the neighboring poor man and his family. Enraged at this obvious injustice, David condemns the man to death and demands that he pay quadruple restitution for the loss of the lamb. (2 Sam. 12:5–6). In a dramatic and prophetic turn, Nathan looks at David. “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). The theft of the precious lamb is of course an analogy to David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah. If we have ears to hear, a similar denunciation, directed towards our pretense that we have earned what we have, echoes from the Scriptures. But first let us consider the story itself.
To the reader, the dramatic tension lies less in Nathan’s denunciation, than in David’s shocking moral blindness to his own offense. Having opened David’s eyes to his crime, Nathan then proceeds to diagnose two causes of this appalling moral blindness.
First, David’s sin began when he forgot that everything he has achieved as king came from God, rather than David’s own hard work and skill. David’s assumption that his authority and possessions — houses, wives, and the territory of Israel and Judah — were his by absolute right led to him treating Bathsheba and Uriah as property as well.
Secondly, David sinned when he “struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword.” In Chapter 11, David in fact carefully avoids killing Uriah himself, but rather exercises the authority and power of his position to send Uriah to the front lines and have him be abandoned by the other troops (11:15). He had sought refuge behind his legitimate authority, misusing it in a way that resulted in Uriah’s death. He refused to take moral responsibility for the cost of that exercise of power, and thus perverted it away from God’s purposes. However, despite these deflections and delegation of the deed, in God’s eyes David was as guilty of Uriah’s murder as if he had swung the sword himself. Like the rich man, he too had defrauded the poor and the consequences for himself and his house would be terrible.
What might Nathan say to Christians today? Christian theology, where salvation comes by faith not works, requires a rejection of spiritual meritocracy. However, as the terms of the contemporary American political debate have made very clear, many American Christians have paired this understanding of spiritual justification as rejecting meritocracy with an un-shakeable conviction that economic justice is simply about just desert. “I built… I own it… I earned it.” In sum: “It’s mine.”
I’ve seen and heard these themes aired in my own social media feed by Christian friends, all successful members of the middle or upper class, whose political convictions rest on a sincere belief that justice requires that any government infringement on their possessions and earnings violates justice by taking away what they have earned and fairly owned. I have seen it around more theoretical internet debates around the resurgence of socialism in national politics.
For example, many evangelicals argue that discussions of redistribution of property both violate scripture’s affirmation of private property ownership and reward vice instead of virtue.
In these claims, I believe that Nathan would identify the same two troubling presuppositions which led to David’s spiritual blindness and failure of moral imagination. Like David, too many American Christians view our achievements as ours alone and our property and earnings (once tithed upon) as ours unconditionally. Like David, we often fail to see our moral responsibility for the effects upon others that arise from the choices which we make “just doing our jobs.” We fail to reckon with the injustice (and, at times, violence) embedded in the system that allows us to accrue our wealth.
Like David, we have forgotten why God gives us power, authority and property. We have forgotten the entire scriptural witness which testified that property and success is never absolutely one’s own, but rather always given contingently, to be used for God’s end, not to satisfy one’s own desires. Often, when we are crying out for “economic justice” for ourselves, we are prioritizing this narrow view of justice over God’s justice, both earthly and spiritual. God’s justice is concerned with the care of the poor, the abandoned and those who come empty-handed, rather than rewarded to those who claim they have earned it all. When we divide God’s mercy in the free gift of grace from the demands of God’s justice upon the earth, we cheapen this grace in the world’s eyes at the same time as we diminish the justice.
What are the best means to care for the poor and who is the proper agent of redistribution is undoubtedly a proper topic for Christian political debate and the exercise of prudential judgement, and will vary depending upon time and context. But the fundamental question of how to use property and influence in accord with God’s plan and not based upon our belief in our own merit is not up for discussion, on the scriptural terms of the debate.
What would Nathan say? He might wonder how many more stories we need to hear to re-awaken our moral imagination and to open our eyes to the injustices perpetrated in our name. He might ask us whether our own lust — for comfort, status, success, and yes, even political protection — has deluded us into seeing others as property to be used for our own gratification and made it impossible to identify our own sins. He would undoubtedly remind us that our hands are just as bloody as the hands of those who kill and degrade the poor, the immigrant, and the helpless because they believe it wins our support and our favor and our votes. As Jesus reminds the Pharisees, at some point God has sent enough prophets. Rather than seeking to defend our own possessions and merit, we should rather be depending on God’s grace that that terrible day does not come soon.
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.