Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Being hungry, even for a day, is mighty unpleasant. I know when I’m really hungry, I can’t even think straight. Sometimes, when we’re hungry for things other than food, we make even less sense. The Old Testament story for today is about a violent and painful mess that comes from being hungry for the wrong things – the story of Absalom.
Absalom isn’t the sole creator of his mess, of course; he was born into it. His father David’s first six sons have six different mothers – and not all of those women, I suspect, were completely willing partners. David used people. When David’s sons are grown, Absalom’s oldest half-brother, Amnon, rapes and then abandons Absalom’s sister Tamar, shaming her, ruining her life.
Absalom finds revenge for his sister; he broods and plans for two years, but finally he traps Amnon and has him killed.
After the murder, Absalom flees. He comes back three years later, but his father still won’t see him; so he just hangs around and lets his resentments fester. Pretty soon, a plan emerges, which I’ll paraphrase as, Dad won’t love me, but I’ll get everyone else in Israel to love me and THEN he’ll be sorry!
So first he lets himself be seen and talked about – kind of like a politician or rock star. He even makes a public spectacle out of his yearly haircut. Oh my, he’ll say, giving his head a Miss-Piggy sort of toss, my luxurious hair is getting so HEAVY, I simply must have it cut. And when it’s cut, he has the trimmings WEIGHED . (Because apparently, having a whole lot of hair is politically cool.) The point is, he’s gorgeous and people are fascinated with him.
But two more years go by and King David still won’t pay attention to him. Absalom asks for help from Joab, the general of David’s army, but Joab ignores him — twice. We’ll see about that! says Absalom, and has his people burn down Joab’s barley field. (Not really a clever move, making the army general your enemy.) Joab does intervene, and David finally forgives Absalom.
But Absalom isn’t content. Old wrongs are still going around and around in his head and he’s still hungry – for who knows what.
So he starts hanging out at the crossroads with his chariot and horses and royal garb and just being gosh-darned SINCERE with every passer-by. Nobody listens to you, he says to each of them, except ME. “If only I were judge in the land!” The text reads, “so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel” – the people who had their own hungers for security and attention.
There’s more plotting, more conspiracies, and finally Absalom gathers an army. David flees for a time, but readies his own army. David’s parting command to them as they march against his son is, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Somehow, despite all Absalom’s posturing, deceit, ego and malice, David still sees the son he loves. If only Absalom did.
You know the end: the battle rages, 20,000 men are slaughtered. Absalom is galloping through an oak grove and forgets to duck. His head gets caught fast in oak branches, and he’s left hanging “between heaven and earth,” while his mule runs from under him. What a terrible image. Our rage and revenge and sickened hungers eventually get us so stuck that we hang between heaven and earth, vulnerable and alone.
The soldiers remember David’s command, so they don’t kill Absalom, but Joab – possibly remembering his barley field burnt to a crisp – plunges three spears into Absalom and lets his own “special squad” finish him off.
When David hears that Absalom is dead, he goes up to his chamber, weeping, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
This is one of those moments where, despite all his misdeeds, David shows his truest self. Broken and flawed as he is – and as wretched and conniving and twisted as Absalom had become – David loves Absalom with a father’s love. In this moment of profound grief, he wishes he could have died in Absalom’s place. Frederick Buechner says, “If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes the King himself.”
So let’s come back, finally, to our Gospel passage. The Good News about the kingdom of Jesus is that Jesus’s love for us is far beyond that of an ally or a friend or even an earthly father.
Jesus, even knowing who we are and what we’re like, loves us with his whole self, his full, incarnated being — and that love is the deep, truly-satisfying love that’s like bread to the starving.
We, like Absalom, may feel famished in the midst of a tortured and empty landscape; at the worst of times we hang helpless between our ambitions and our desires, and we despair. And in that achingly vulnerable place, are we met with holy rules or conditions or tepid toleration? No, no, no. Listen to what Jesus says here:
“…anyone who comes to me, I will never drive away.” It makes me terribly sad when I see and hear people who think they speak for God, but whose words and actions drive away hungry souls like you and me. Those folks imagine there’s some necessary standard of purity that they’re living up to but others aren’t.
I know I’m not meeting any purity standard. I’m dangling from that oak tree along with everyone else, all-too-aware of how I bring myself and others pain, how I get myself into messes and how I’m so not in control of fixing myself or others.
Yet into that very emptiness and pain comes Jesus. Jesus, whose freely-given life is living bread to the starving, the source of life and restoration we’ve been longing for all our lives. Jesus, who will never drive us away. Jesus, who says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Whoever believes in me. . . Let me end with a word about believing. In our 21st-century worldview, we think of “believing” as a mental operation: we weigh facts, discard untruths, and enter into agreement with an intellectual conclusion. That contemporary understanding makes it hard to approach the ancient outlook of metaphors, stories and relationships.
My concordance tells me that the word translated as “believe” here was more like our word “trust” or “entrust.” Jesus is asking for us to trust him — not by ignoring the evidence of our senses and intellect, but by coming to know him so well that we can rely on what he offers us.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to sign a letter of agreement filled with theological terms. Jesus simply OFFERS himself as living bread – here at this table this morning and every day — and asks us to feed on his unending love. May we always say yes to this gift. Amen.