Tuesday of week 4 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Sam 18:9-10, 14, 24-25, 30-19:3

Once again David surprises us by his reactions.

The tables are being turned on the rebellious Absalom and a huge army goes out against his supporters. David himself, on the advice of his commanders, stays behind. Already they suspect his gentle attitude towards his son. “Deal gently with him,” he told them as they set off. In the ensuing battle, David’s men are victorious.

Absalom, now in flight, on his mule gets his long hair caught in branches as he rides under a tree. The mule rides on and Absalom is left hanging in mid-air. (The mule apparently was the normal mount for royalty in David’s kingdom.) We were told earlier that Absalom, who was stunningly handsome, had such an abundance of thick hair that he had to shave his head every year. Presumably, then, it was this hair which got entangled in the branches of the tree. Whatever the cause, it was the young man’s beauty which was his undoing.

Absalom hanging from the tree was immediately reported to Joab, the general leading the army.

In verses not part of today’s reading, Joab asked the man why he had not struck Absalom down and received a reward. The man replied that even if he had 2,000 piece of silver in his hands, he would not lay a hand on the king’s son, whom David had ordered his officers to protect. “If I had done this,” he said, “I would have been held to account while Joab and his men would have pleaded ignorance.” (Just as higher-ups still do today.)

Joab then himself went and thrust three pikes into the heart of the helpless Absalom, still hanging alive on the tree. In Joab’s view, the rebellion is now over and the threat to David’s throne has been removed.

The battle is now called off. Absalom is taken down from the tree and thrown into a deep pit in the forest. A pile of stones is set up as a marker for his grave.

Meanwhile, Ahimaaz, the son of the priest Zadok, offers to bring the good news of the victory to David. Joab tells him he is not the man to do it because, in fact, for David it will not be good news with his son dead. Instead an anonymous Cushite is sent to bring the message. Then Ahimaaz again pleads with Joab to let him go. Joab tells him: “There is no reward in this for you, believe me.” But in the end he lets Ahimaaz go. He runs after the Cushite and actually overtakes him and is the first to reach the city wall.

A lookout on the city gates saw Ahimaaz running alone. David said, “If he is alone, it must be good news.” A large group of fleeing soldiers could only have meant disaster. Then the second runner is seen and again David says it must mean good news. As the runners get closer, Ahimaaz is recognised as one of them. Said David: “He is a good man; he comes with good news.”

Ahimaaz then, in the presence of David, reports: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who rebelled against my lord the king.” But David has only one question: “Is my son Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz, suddenly realising the significance of the question, is immediately cautious and, in fact, does not say what he knows: “I saw a great disturbance when the king’s servant Joab sent your servant on, but I do not know what it was.”

David then put Ahimaaz aside until he heard the Cushite’s report. The Cushite too at first only gives a general report: “Let my lord the king receive the good news that this day the Lord has taken your part, freeing you from the grasp of all who rebelled against you.”

Again, the king has only one concern: “Is young Absalom safe?” The indirect response of the Cushite says it all: “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rebel against you with evil intent be as that young man!”

Far from being overjoyed at the removal of his rebellious son, David takes refuges in a room over the city gate and is overcome with grief: "My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!" Words that have echoed down the centuries as one of the most moving expressions of a father’s love. And that in spite of all that Absalom had done against his father. It reminds one of the way that God loves us, even at our most sinful.

And what should have been a triumphant victory is turned into a day of mourning for the whole army.

As the text continues beyond our reading, we are told that the generals and soldiers had mixed feelings about David’s reaction. They wondered if Absalom, who was out to destroy his father, had lived and they had died, would David have been happier? In that they may have been unfair. For it is only a parent who knows the feeling of having a child, even a rebellious child, lost in this way.

Once again, we see the deep humanity of David. He did what we often fail to do. He made the clear distinction between the person of his son and his actions. He was opposed to his son’s actions but he deeply loved his son. We sometimes express that by saying that we love the sinner but not the sin. So often, however, our hate is directed so that both forgiveness and reconciliation can be very difficult.

Jesus, of course, as the image of his Father, also set us an example in this regard. As men, filled with hatred, nailed him to the cross, he prayed: "Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing." And, of course, every time we take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we expect that God will forgive us no matter what we may have done or how often.

Let us remember, though, that as Christians we need to take on the same attitude as Jesus. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, "Forgive us our sins AS we forgive those who sin against us." It is a dangerous prayer to make and we should think twice about its meaning before we let it trip so easily off our tongues.

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