The very worst thing Nathan could imagine

The very worst thing Nathan could imagine December 15, 2011

Here is an alien story from another world.

It’s from 3,000 years ago, or what we think of as “biblical times.” That’s the right word in this case, since this story is from the Bible. It’s the story of the prophet Nathan coming to condemn King David for his sin.

Before he can convince David to repent, Nathan has to convince him that he’s done something wrong, so first he tells the king a story. It’s a story about the very worst thing — the most despicably evil thing — that Nathan can imagine.

The story is about a rich man who steals from a poor man. In this story, the man who already has More Than Enough takes from another man who has Just Enough and leaves him with Less Than Enough.

Nathan doesn’t explain that this is the worst and most despicable thing he can imagine. He doesn’t need to explain that. Everyone already knew that. He knew it. David knew it. This was, for them and everyone they knew, the very definition of awfulness.

“The man who has done this deserves to die!” the king says.

And that’s when Nathan springs his trap. He shows the king that his own sin was to have done the same thing. Then, and only then, David collapses in sorrow and repents.

I called this an alien story from another world because it illustrates just how vastly different our view of the world and of God has become from the view that Nathan and David shared. David was guilty of adultery and murder. He knew himself to be guilty of those things. And Nathan didn’t walk in and point his finger at the king and say, “You are an adulterer and a murderer!” Instead, Nathan told a story to help David understand that he was guilty of something even worse. He told a story to help the king understand that he had become a rich man who had stolen from a poor man.

And once the prophet put it that way, David repented in sorrow.

Three thousand years later, when a rich man steals from a poor man he is as likely to be celebrated for it as to be condemned. The sin portrayed in Nathan’s story — the evil act that was the worst thing either he or David could imagine — is sometimes grudgingly conceded to be unethical, but it’s hardly seen as in the same league as adultery and murder. Accuse someone of adultery or murder and they’ll vigorously deny they’re guilty of such monstrous deeds. Accuse someone of being a rich man stealing from the poor and they’ll dismiss the accusation by explaining that their actions are justified and reasonable and perfectly responsible.

I suppose that if the old prophet Nathan were to return today he would have to take the opposite strategy from the one he took with David. If he confronted the predatory gamblers who reign as kings in our world he couldn’t tell them the same story he told King David. He’d instead have to tell them a story about adultery and murder — some story that they would recognize as being about something indefensibly wicked, until they shouted “This murderous adulterer deserves to die!”

And then, again, Nathan could spring his trap, revealing to them how their habit of stealing from the poor makes them just as evil as the murderous adulterer in his story. Perhaps then they would break down in sorrow and repent.

Or perhaps not. After all, that really is an alien story from another world.

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