I once went through a real Thomas Hardy kick. I was travelling abroad and fell upon Jude the Obscure. I loved it and, when I finished, I sought out another. The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, and, of course, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It did not matter to me that they were so similar. In fact, that’s what I loved about them. From the moment I began each one, I knew that things wouldn’t end well. Hardy’s running criticism of moralistic Christianity meant that every happy, passionate couple was destined to be torn apart by the demands of Victorian society.
So it is with the story of David and Absalom. Partly, that’s because I’ve read the story before, but I don’t think you need to have finished it to know how it ends. In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David agrees to let his servant Joab bring Absalom, the king’s beloved though estranged son, back from exile. Absalom, known for his beauty and treachery, had killed his half-brother and his father’s oldest son because he had raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister. When Absalom comes back, we read, he remained in Jerusalem though was not invited into the king’s presence for two years. Finally, unable to get Joab’s attention, the petulant Absalom set fire to his barley field in order to convince Joab to get the king to let Absalom back into the palace. The plan works, and Absalom comes into his father’s presence and does obeisance. But we know things won’t end well.
Sometimes we can just tell—whether in a story, in a movie, or in real life—that someone is destined for trouble. Maybe it’s a pattern of behavior from the past. Maybe it’s a preference for trouble-making company. Maybe it’s a penchant for poor decisions. But sometimes we just know that things will end up badly—an arrest, a divorce, a dispute, an estrangement, a death.
For those of us who are watching the predetermined tragedy unfold, the hardest part is the feeling of helplessness. What do you say to a wayward child to get him to change his wild ways? What can you do to pull a desperate spouse back from the edge of disaster? How do you stop the inevitable?
Well, we pray a lot. At least that’s what I do with people who come to me in a situation like that. Sometimes I’m asked what good it does, and I usually say I don’t know. The truth is that usually there is nothing we can do to change the situation of another person. For real change to happen, the individual mired in trouble will have to surrender to the fact that his or her life is spinning out of control. Prayer, perhaps, is a way of acknowledging that—that you can’t make things better on your own, that it isn’t your problem to solve, that God alone is able to save.
And that’s the remarkable thing—that, no matter how destined for destruction a person’s life might be, with God darkness is never the end of the story. There is no addiction, no compulsion, no drive so dark or evil or destructive that God cannot redeem it. Even if there is no peace in this life, this life is not the end. God sees beyond the limits of this life. God sees us not as hopeless train-wrecks waiting to unfold but as children he is determined to save. The story of Jesus—one in which all that is good takes on all that is evil in the world—was always destined to lead to the cross, but it was never going to end there. Yes, cross. Yes, death. Yes, tragedy. But with God there is always resurrection. Easter wins.