Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12 is a beautiful manipulation of David’s emotions.
It challenges him first to condemn a fictional character so he might begin to see the error of his way.
Nathan confronts David after his escapades with Bathsheba and orchestrating the murder of Uriah the Hittite, crafting a story contrasting a poor and a wealthy man, each with sheep.
The story makes a much greater distinction of the love both men had for their sheep. The wealthy man was not so concerned with any one of his sheep.
His concern was with the total number under his control. He did not want to lose any of them, for their total was a measure of his wealth.
When a visitor comes to the wealthy man, hospitality toward strangers required that he provide refreshment, lodging and protection. So, the wealthy man took the poor man’s sheep, instead of using his own.
Nathan tells David the story and, foreseeably, David is outraged against such an injustice toward the poor man.
Nathan was counting on that reaction because of how Yahwist society dealt with issues of greed, hospitality and the proper use of wealth.
He chose this example because it would strike a chord with David in recognition that his actions were reflected in the character’s example of greed and the false front of a fake hospitality.
David had become ensnared by his wealth and the desire for even greater wealth.
Bathsheba was considered property. She was the wife and property of Uriah, an immigrant living in the land and in service to David.
Uriah had done respectable work on David’s behalf, yet David’s treatment of him disrespected his humanity.
Just as Bathsheba was treated socially as property, so David considered his own wives and concubines as property, desiring to amass greater wealth and prominence by claiming more for himself.
Stepping upon others in the process of giving in to his greed was the same sort of injustice Nathan’s parable highlighted.
Interestingly, Nathan’s parable does not mention anything about the wealthy man killing the poor one. It stops with the slaughter of the poor man’s sheep, focusing on the wealthy man’s greed, theft and injustice toward one with little to no recourse for his own defense.
Greed is the issue highlighted. It is a parable of economic injustice that ends prior to the death of the poor man, even though David orchestrated Uriah’s death.
Death, murder and killing were accepted ways of life for David. His career had been built upon the violence of war and death.
While his actions in orchestrating Uriah’s death were condemnable, they were not as relatable to an accusation of injustice as was greed. It is as though the cultural, social and religious norms of David’s day and our own were reversed.
Nathan had no need to address the murder of Uriah once David understood how greed was behind his actions toward Uriah and Bathsheba.
David’s greed for power, wealth, influence and control had taken over his life and perspectives. It had become the dominant theme of his life, diverting his attention from worshipping, honoring and trusting Yahweh to care for his needs.
Jesus told a similar parable about a rich man and Lazarus, condemning the wealthy in his own day for their disregard for the economic distress of their neighbors.
He turned the parable into a wholesale condemnation of those whose greed shut their eyes to the plight of those on their doorstep.
It is a message the church has all too often failed to address. We are too ensnared by the very same greed underlying David’s actions of injustice.
We are too enamored of accumulating wealth. We worship the wealthy rather than call them to account. We are even less willing to call ourselves to account for our own greed.
Culturally, socially and politically, many actually blame the poor for their plight, seeing them as greedy for wanting basic access to those things essential for living – food, shelter, clothing and health.
Meanwhile, the greed of the wealthy is seen as worthy of social and political protection.
We turn Jesus’ and Nathan’s parables upside down.
The poor are not unworthy of life, liberty and those things necessary to their survival.
Perhaps it is time to hear again Nathan’s closing remark to David: “You are the man!”
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared on Harbin’s blog, Faith Challenges. It was submitted for consideration by the author and is used with permission.
Formerly a Baptist missionary in Mexico and Brasil, Harbin is a Provisional Elder with the United Methodist Church in Wingate, North Carolina. He has written several books, including On Immigration: Surveying Biblical Teaching on Issues of Immigration, Immigrants, Foreigners, and Strangers.