Summary: Third in a series on popular illusions. We think we can change others, but shaming them will not work. Nor will forcing them. Only a spiritual-relationship crisis will do so. Help them see how sin injures Christ and they will change.
There have always been folks who have thought they could change the world, people who were unwilling to leave things as they are, who want to make a difference, who want to get things done. They want to change the world. The trouble is, they usually run up against harsh human reality.
Eighty or so years ago, our grandparents announced that they were fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. They thought they were changing things forever. But barely twenty years later that dream came crashing down under the flag of Nazism. Changing people’s warlike habits was not so easy.
Less than forty years ago, a dashing young American president created the Peace Corps. It attracted a legion of young people who believed that, with American technology and boundless energy, they could go anywhere and pay any price and do anything to lift up people. They thought they could teach birth control to India, flood control to Pakistan, and disease control to Nicaragua. But many of them found they could not teach self-control to anybody! Changing people’s cultures was not easy, and changing individuals was nearly impossible.
Thirty years ago, young people were clamoring to go to medical school, so that they could be the next Charles Drew or Jonas Salk and could eradicate disease. They were pressing into law school, so that they could walk in Thurgood Marshall’s shoes and eliminate racism. They were filling up the social work schools, so that they could fight the war on poverty, build the great society, end Vietnam, and change it all! We demonstrated for change everywhere, the campuses, the streets, and the Woolworth’s lunch counter. We would change the very face of America.
And now? How much has changed? Woolworth’s lunch counter is in the Smithsonian, and, as of this week, Woolworth’s itself is history; but the sicknesses of the human heart go on and on. Little seems to change.
We are not the first generation to find this discouraging. We are not the first to hold the great expectation that we can change others, only to founder on that expectation. Three thousand years ago, a drama was acted out in the Judean hills that tells us about our great expectation, that we can change people.
The key players in this drama are the men surrounding the King of Israel. David is getting pushed around by two people. One of them is his military chief, Joab. The other is his son, Absalom. Between the general and the prince, a whole lot is going on to try to change the King. They really believe that they can change David. But it’s tougher than they supposed.
In brief, the story is this: Absalom had arranged for the murder of his half-brother, Amnon, in revenge for Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. As angry has David had been about Amnon’s sin, he had not punished his son, so David’s other son, Absalom, had taken it upon himself to work vengeance. As our story is set today, David has grieved over Amnon’s slaughter. Absalom is a fugitive, and David is grieving over that, but the king cannot bring himself to forgive his son and bring him home. He is in conflict. He doesn’t know quite what to do, and like a lot of us who aren’t sure what we should do, he does nothing. He just sits and nurses his wounds. Something needs to change.
Enter General Joab. Joab sees that David needs to change. David needs to get off dead center. So Joab selects a strategy. Joab sets up a shame game. In this shame game, Joab enlists a woman to come to the king and tell him a story about her two sons, one of whom has supposedly killed the other, and now she is afraid somebody will kill the remaining one, and she and her husband will have nobody left in their old age. It is quite a tearjerker. She gets the king to promise that he will protect her family against anyone who would harm that other son.
But then it dawns on David what she is trying to say. It dawns on him that she is really talking about his two sons, not hers. And David also figures out that Joab put her up to this. Joab has played the shame game on David. It appears to work! It appears to work, because, as a result, David lifts the ban on Absalom. David gives permission to Joab to go get Absalom from his exile and bring him back to Jerusalem. The shame game appears to have worked. David appears to have changed.
However, that is an illusion. It doesn’t work, because, although David does order that Absalom be brought back to Jerusalem, then David issues another order, "Let him go to his own house- he is not to come into my presence."