My friend Karen* has just had surgery, and her husband is away. (This is not uncommon for military folk like us.) We have spent three days holed up at my place—she as the patient, me the attempted nurse—so she can begin to heal. Now she’s ready to be back on her feet and at home, but her cupboards are bare. So we go grocery shopping on the way over to her place. She chooses the food, I push the cart and lift the heavy things.
We arrive at a seasonal display in the produce department. Bags of cherries are stacked up in piles: a couple rows of deep red, a couple rows of red-yellow, then a couple more of red. It is at this point when Karen reaches out nonchalantly and grabs a single Ranier.
“I always taste-test these to make sure they’re good first,” she explains, popping it into her mouth. Her official assessment is a slight pucker.
My internal response to this cherry-pick is instantly surprising to me, for two reasons. First, it seems entirely self-contradictory. Second, it seems completely overblown. There is a big part of me that’s inclined to shrug off the incident as nothing; at the same time, another big part of me is absolutely horrified. Obviously this makes no sense, given that the two options are mutually exclusive.
Still, as Karen begins to step away from the fruit display, both impulses are firing forcibly within me. I want to be incredibly disapproving of my friend and I also want to be incredibly blasé. Along with that, I am conflicted to a bewildering degree about which approach would be right, if either. And I am annoyed beyond a reasonable level, knowing that I could become so bothered over a simple, black-and-white issue and a lone, thumb-sized fruit.
But I give myself too much credit there—because neither response option is right. My issue is not black and white, and fruit is not the problem. I will begin to see this clearly just minutes later: at checkout, when my field of vision suddenly includes not just these grocery store surroundings but also the giant plank coming out of my eye.
2 Samuel 15 is a story of betrayal. It is a son conniving and then usurping his father’s throne. Absalom—who by this point has already murdered his half-brother to avenge a sister’s honor, lived in exile after being banished from Jerusalem and from his father David’s house, and set fire to a field because its owner didn’t pop over for a visit when summoned—has his sights on David’s crown. The text doesn’t suggest why, so we are left to assume Absalom’s motivation is one or more of the typical ones: ego, power-hunger, daddy issues, etc.
The coup is craftily executed. Absalom spends four years laying the groundwork in order to crush his father’s following and run him out of the city. When the overthrow seems imminent, David and his loyalists flee the palace in fear for their necks. Then, in what is perhaps David’s last (for now) act of kingship, he directs the Israelite priests who are with him to return into Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant. This is significant, because God has made it clear to the Israelites that the ark is where God lives. It holds his very presence among them.
David seems to understand that God’s city is where God belongs. So even as he leaves, David ensures that God stays. In this surprising turn, Absalom’s betrayal not only steals his father’s reign, it also denies David and his followers their access—in a physical sense, at least—to God himself. The text makes the depth of their loss obvious:
…David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went. (2 Samuel 15:30, ESV)
It is heartbreaking. This is why I am one of the people who, after an initial swipe at 2 Samuel, comes away appalled at the person Absalom. His unending selfishness, his cruel bravado, his familial disloyalty, his bloodthirsty rage—my inner good-girl is disgusted. When in chapter 18 he dies surrounded, hanging by his hair from a tree and with three javelins through his heart, I am mostly inclined to say he deserved it.
Which brings us again to that giant plank of mine.
There is a coin machine in the checkout lane: it dispenses small change for people who pay cash. When Karen and I step up to the register for her turn to pay, there are five or six coins already in the machine’s metal mouth. They are not mine, and I have no claim to them, but when I see them I want them. So again I am conflicted.
This is far from ethical gymnastics; my mental friction centers solely on whether or not I can somehow get those coins into a purse or pocket without someone else witnessing it. But Karen is two feet away from me, and the cashier seems generally aware. After weighing several strategies I decide that it is impossible. So I choose what feels like the second-best option.
“It looks like someone left their change,” I say, grabbing the coins and holding them out for the cashier to see. He silently makes eye contact and lets me drop the money into his hand. He has no praise for this noble act of mine; instead he says only, “Huh.”
As he deposits the extra change into his register, I am mostly convinced he’ll get to take it home tonight after his shift, and I find the odds of that unspeakably irritating.
Karen and I make our way out of the store. She says something to me about the change and I respond with a laugh: “That makes up for the cherry.”
Which it does not, in any sense at all.
Just one of the ugly truths about me is that I will connive and cartwheel in order to project a polished image of myself to those around me. I will give up something like 67 cents, begrudgingly if necessary, because in the end that masks my stingy, tight-fisted ways and makes me look honorable. I will labor at the fruit display, red-faced and visibly uncomfortable—not because I am concerned about right and wrong, but because I want everyone to be approving of me and on my side always. That includes both my cherry-picking friend and any bystander in the produce section who might disparage thumb-sized fruit theft. Who might consider me an accomplice, thinking far less of me than I would prefer.
This is why the story of Absalom and David is fitting for people like me. This is why, when read in light of the gospel, it is intensely convicting.
When David, betrayed and cast out, makes his mournful climb up the Mount of Olives, it is in a way a preview for another moment that’s yet to come. The New Testament tells of a second king, the one true King, Jesus, who at the base of the same Mount of Olives, in a garden called Gethsemane, sweats drops of blood in absolute grief over his days ahead (Luke 22.) But that ahead is part of the point: this king’s betrayal is in front of him, not behind him. This king, who embodies God’s presence on earth, is about to be banished from it, but not by force. The wrath, the agony, and the ultimate death are his choice; he chooses them for himself in order that we his betrayers might live.
The message of the gospel is that Jesus volunteers himself for the worst penalty that sinful creation has to offer, in order to gain the best reward—the one Christ’s righteousness earns, eternal life—for us. For us! We, who worship our own petty glory and seek to exalt our own heartless ways. We, who in every instance of self-righteousness deny that his sacrifice is our only good.
It is such terrible irony: haltingly, undeservedly beautiful. I am every day striving for a standing, clamoring for a crown that might make me worthy of him; yet he dies in order to hand me his own freely.
*not her real name