The Politics of a Good Name
Review of the Eighth Commandment
A sermon based on 2 Samuel 15:1-12
Sunday, August 10, 2014 – Pentecost 9A
In his explanation of the 8th Commandment Martin Luther wrote: "We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way."
Have you been paying attention to the different candidates running for political office this summer? If you've kept track of how many those running for office were to break this commandment before elections, how many files do you think you'd need? Doesn't it sometimes seek like the goal of every politician to make sure his opponent is given a bad name? How often have you talked badly about one of the candidates trying to make sure that no one thinks well of that guy? That everyone takes his words and actions in the worst possible way so no one votes for him?
Mud slinging politics and the breaking of the 8th Commandment aren't new to our time. In fact, not much has changed in the past 3,000 years! King David's son, Absalom, spread lies and smeared his own father's name in order to take the kingdom from him. Listen to what he did in 2 Samuel 15:1-12…
In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. 2 He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, "What town are you from?" He would answer, "Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel." 3 Then Absalom would say to him, "Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you." 4 And Absalom would add, "If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice."
5 Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. 6 Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
7 At the end of four years, Absalom said to the king, "Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow I made to the Lord. 8 While your servant was living at Geshur in Aram, I made this vow: 'If the Lord takes me back to Jerusalem, I will worship the Lord in Hebron.'"
9 The king said to him, "Go in peace." So he went to Hebron.
10 Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, "As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpets, then say, 'Absalom is king in Hebron.'" 11 Two hundred men from Jerusalem had accompanied Absalom. They had been invited as guests and went quite innocently, knowing nothing about the matter. 12 While Absalom was offering sacrifices, he also sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's counselor, to come from Giloh, his hometown. And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom's following kept on increasing.
Absalom's ambitions were simple: Become king. Since King David had seven wives and lots of sons by those wives, the position wasn't guaranteed even to the oldest son. So to ensure that he was next in line, he'd have to work for it. He'd have to politick a bit and win the Israelites over one heart at a time. So he lied about his father and his administration: "My father's too incompetent and too inept to adequately deal with all of your problems. If only I were put in charge, things would be fair and equitable, unlike the way dad treats you." "If only I were appointed," is literally, "If only he appointed me." In other words, if only dad had a clue." And intentionally giving his father a bad name, he improved his own name in the eyes of the people.
He lied to his father about his intent to travel to Hebron (where his father was proclaimed king and from where he ruled for the first 7½ years of his reign) and went there to build a secret following of supporters who would crown him king there. With incredible political astuteness, Absalom stole the hearts of the Israelites. "And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom's following kept on increasing."
How ironic that Absalom, who's name means my father is peace, waged a quiet war against his own father to steal the kingdom. How hypocritical to offer sacrifices to God as a pretext to destroy his dad! How despicable! Thank God we're not like Absalom, huh?
Or are we? Maybe you and I aren't running for office or trying to win a kingdom, but how well do we keep the 8th Commandment? If there were a hidden microphone recording every single word you spoke this week, how comfortable would you be to have it played back in front of everyone? God doesn't need a microphone. He heard every word.
Did you smear your own parents name this week? "If only my parents weren't so lame! I can't believe how clueless they are!" That's not just breaking the 4th Commandment, by dishonoring your parents, but it's also breaking the 8th! Did you lie to protect your own name and pass the blame on to someone else? Did you pass on some "dirt" about someone else, maybe adding, "I'm only telling you this so you can pray for them" to make it seem loving and compassionate, rather than slanderous?
Or maybe you've broken this commandment by what you've failed to do. Have you defended others reputations when you hear the dirt? Have you allowed the gossip to continue by providing a listening ear? Have you "sympathized" with others by helping them bash the one they're mad at, by simply nodding in agreement while they unload?
"Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."?! What a lie! Bones heal in a matter of weeks. Reputations can take a lifetime to heal and be scarred for a lifetime. We have damaged the reputation of others. We've allowed their reputations be damaged in our esteem by what we've heard and believed. We've failed to defend others, to take their words and actions in the kindest possible way and to help others do the same. We have played the politics of ruining others' reputations
And so when we look into the mirror of the law, we do see Absalom staring right back at us. How despicable we are! How deserving we are of the bad names: Gossip, traitor, sinner. How deserving we are to have God call us "damned." God, forgive us of our sin!
And rejoice that he does through Jesus!
You know, Jesus knows what it's like to be the butt of jokes, to be mocked and taunted, to have his name—which is above every name! (cf. Philippians 2:9)—dragged through mud. Perhaps prompted by this betrayal from a once trusted advisor by from his own son, King David wrote in Psalm 55(:12-14), "If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God." But this Psalm may not be just about David, but a prophetic Psalm that pointed ahead to Jesus who was betrayed by his close friend, Judas.
As a result of that betrayal, Jesus was put on trial. And though he was slandered, falsely accused, with lie after lie—even in a court of law where his life was on the line, he did not react in like manner. He refused to play the politics and slander back. He remained silent. After he was sentenced to death, Jesus went to the cross. And even there he took the words and actions of those who were torturing him in the kindest possible way and prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." He kept the 8th Commandment perfectly and remained perfect in every way. Why? So he could give that perfection he gives to you and me.
And there he took the name Sinner on himself. He took your name and mine on the cross where God's wrath was poured out against every sin we've committed. And by that act, he gave us his names: Perfect, Sinless, Holy One. Now you and I are no longer know as Absalom but as Jesus. God sees Jesus' perfection when he looks at you and he calls you by these new names: Christian, Forgiven, Perfect, Saint.
Our name is not dragged through the mud as our sins deserve, but lifted up by God and held in the highest regard! We are called God's own! And Jesus still stands in heaven as our mediator, defending us and speaking well of us before God the Father! What grace upon grace he gives us!
And we can't help but respond in thanks! How? By protecting others' reputations and helping them keep their good names. Luther offered three ways of doing that: First, by defending others. When a young David was slandered by King Saul who sought to kill him, Saul's son, Jonathan, risked his own life to defend him. "'Why should he be put to death? What has he done?' Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him." (1 Samuel 20:32-33) In thanks to your Savior for the good name he's given you can risk your reputation at school or at work to defend the person who's picked on and slandered. You can speak up and stop the gossip!
Second, Luther encourages us to speak well of others. It's easy to point out the flaws and defects, the mistakes and the sins of others. But in thanks for the forgiveness we have in our Savior we can overlook those things in others and follow mom's advice: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all!" Instead, come up with something nice to say. Speak well of others often enough and find yourself soon believing it!
Finally, Luther encourages us to take others' words and actions in the kindest possible way. That means when you hear the gossip you don't believe all that you hear. That means you give people the benefit of the doubt. It means we don't read hidden motives into the words and actions of others. It means we forgive others for their unkind words even when those words are aimed at us. Another of David's sons, Solomon, wrote in Ecclesiastes 7(:21-22), "[Don't] pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you— for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others." Instead, follow Peter's godly advice and in thanks to Jesus, "live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called." (1 Peter 3:8-9)
"A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." (Proverbs 22:1) Rejoice in the good name that you have through your Savior! And with your new name, do all you can to protect the good name of others! In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.