Is there such a thing is a kingdom without end? Would we even want such a thing?
The kingdom of David and his heirs certainly came to an end, and a nasty, fratricidal one at that. So what are we to make of Nathan’s prophecy in the first reading for this final Sunday of Advent?
The angelic message in the Gospel reading from Luke draws a direct connection to the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy. The Lord God promises to give this child yet to be born “the throne of David his father,” says Gabriel. This connection has a couple of obvious anomalies, though. It is Joseph who is named as being “of the house of David,” but the angelic message is also clear that Joseph would not be his natural father. Even if Joseph’s foster fathering of Jesus is good enough to count him as being part of the “house of David,” then why would Nathan’s prophecy so specifically designate the favored ancestor to be “sprung from your loins”? Are the Scriptures perhaps taking a subtle dig at the prevailing notion that women are irrelevant to lineage? Mary probably was descended from the “house of David” as well, since people in her culture usually married within their own tribe, but she is not named in either Matthew’s or Luke’s genealogical passages.
This is far from the only way that God upends the expectations of the Israelites in fulfilling the prophecy of Nathan. We shouldn’t be surprised that God is full of surprises when already in the first reading, God turns down the offer to be honored with the construction of a palace. “You think I care about a house of cedar?” God puts down David’s idea of what it means to honor him. “I am not your creation; you are mine,” says God. “Neither can anything you build contain me or honor me. The only ‘house’ that means anything to me is the one that I build to give shelter and peace to you.’”
And how will God fulfill the promise of peace, of giving the Israelites “rest from all your enemies”? The Israelites were expecting a warrior king to establish such “peace through strength.” The lectionary for this Sunday typically excerpts Psalm 89 to make it sound as if the inspired authors understood God to be full of “kindness.” But the unredacted Psalm speaks of a “dreaded” God who “crushes Rahab with a mortal blow,” blesses “people who know the war cry,” and anoints David and his dynasty to be a “leader over warriors.” Even to David’s descendants, the psalmist’s God says “I will punish their crime with a rod and their guilt with blows. But I will not take my mercy from him, nor will I betray my bond of faithfulness.” Mercy is the term the lectionary renders as “kindness,” but the psalmist’s conception of a God that says “I hit you because I love you” looks a lot like my earthly father, who is definitely not “kind” in any modern sense of the term. The fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy in the mode in which the Israelites were expecting it would not have been “good news” for women, children, foreigners, or anyone else who wasn’t among the “chosen” people.
God is smarter than the anointed ones who recounted their impressions of encounters with the Divine in writings that came to be known as the Bible. God knows that so-called peace established by the force of a king is not sustainable, never mind perpetual. God knows that any house constructed by human hands and ingenuity will eventually crumble. God has something much better in mind, but it’s a “mystery kept secret for long ages,” as St. Paul says in the second reading. “But now [it is] manifested through [connecting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to] the prophetic writings,” he continues. The “glory” that should be given to the “only wise God” is the obedience of faith. This phrase, “obedience of faith,” does not refer to compliance with Mosaic laws, nor even believing whatever a religious authority tells you. The original Greek phrase, ὑπακοὴν πίστεως, connotes something more along the lines of attentive listening that arises from fidelity to the one speaking. True peace can be achieved and sustained where there is mutual trust and attentiveness.
And so, the prophecy of Nathan was not fulfilled by giving any military or legal power to a son of David. It was fulfilled when a woman, in fidelity to a Lord who was not the man recognized as her husband under the law, listened attentively to the message of God and responded with trusting cooperation. It was fulfilled when God was incarnated and born as a helpless infant, whose every need had to be tended to by this woman. It was fulfilled when this infant grew up to be a man who said that everyone who was attentive to the revealed word of God would be his mother and father, sisters and brothers. It was even fulfilled when the imperial oppressors of the Israelites executed him. Because the truth cannot die, and a relationship based on truth and mutuality is the only kind that can last.
Does the house of David still endure? Yes, but no thanks to warriors or legal institutions. It endures because generations upon generations of people have received the spirit of adoption, becoming children of God. The house that endures is the sense of family that is built on mutual trust and attentiveness, having been born of water and the Spirit into this dynasty of grace.
When we come together as heirs to this house, are we building it up as something that is inviting and enduring, or are we distancing ourselves from peace by treating others as enemies? Let us not follow the example of David and contribute to a house that turns fratricidal. Let us follow the maternal example of Mary and tenderly attend to each other’s needs. Only such a house of love can endure forever.