David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”
Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. – 2 Samuel 9:1-13
Being together with our high school students at Montreat got me thinking about when I was around their age. And reading this week’s sermon text made me remember a particular incident that happened when I was just a little older than them. It was right after I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and I was doing all the things that a college freshman moving into a new town had to do to get settled in. One of those things was opening a checking account at a local bank. This was the Fall of 1978, a time when banks were just starting to dabble in having ATMs. Not all the banks in town even had them, and I picked my bank in part because they did – and I liked the flexibility that it offered, being able to do my banking any time of day or night. And I did. I used my new ATM card a lot. One of the times that I used it in the middle of the night, I was pulling an all-nighter in the architecture design studio. It was around 2:00 or 2:30, and I needed a break, and I was hungry. I wanted to go across the street to the Penn State Diner for a Sloppy Joe and a coffee, but I didn’t have a dime to my name at the moment, either in cash or in my bank account. I had actually deposited a check that my parents had sent me in the mail, but the problem was that the bank took three days for an out-of-town check to clear, and here I was, at two o’clock in the morning just before the dawn of the third day. I knew the money really wasn’t in my account yet, but I figured I could walk down to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars, and by the time anyone came in the following morning to see that I’ve overdrawn my account, the deposit would have posted and it would be a moot point. I felt a little guilty about it, but, did I mention I was really hungry? So I walked to the ATM to withdraw the money that I knew wasn’t technically there. I inserted my card and punched in my PIN number and my withdrawal request – but when I did, the machine swallowed my card, and the screen said “Unable to process transaction at this time. Please see a teller during banking hours for more information.” Crap. I was busted. I was mortified, knowing I was going to have to go into the bank in the morning and admit what I’d tried to do, and that I knew it was wrong, and apologize and throw myself on their mercy, and hope I wasn’t going to have to pay some hefty penalty for having tried it. I walked back to the studio, still broke, and still hungry, and now worried about what the morning would bring.
So the next morning, I went into the bank and stood in line waiting for a free teller. When one was open, I started to spill my guts to him, explaining that I knew what did was wrong, and I won’t do it again, and I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah, until he finally broke in and said, “No, no, no, wait a minute, hold on! The machine didn’t hold your card because of that. We just instructed the machine to do that the next time you used your card so you’d come into the bank to retrieve it. You see, you use our new ATM more than anyone else in town, and we just wanted a chance to thank you in person for making use of the new service. In fact, we’re actually giving you twenty-five dollars, just as a small token of our thanks for embracing the new technology!”
Well, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that this didn’t go at all the way I’d expected. But to this day, I still remember the dread and worry and fear that I felt about being summoned to the bank.
That memory came to mind when I read today’s sermon text, the story of David and Mephiboseth. I like this story – and not just because it’s fun to say the name “Mephibosheth.” I can’t help but think that Mephibosheth had to have a similar kind of dread that I had waiting to talk to the bank teller, only much more so, when he was summoned to meet with King David. He knew that not only had his grandfather, King Saul, been killed, but all of Saul’s children were hunted down and killed too, including his own father, Jonathan – partly out of revenge, and partly to eliminate anyone who could claim to be the legitimate heir to Saul’s throne, and posing a challenge to David’s reign. For his own part, he’d suffered permanent injury when he was just a five-year old, when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and his nurse, knowing the great danger that the boy faced, was hurrying so quickly to run away and hide him that she dropped him, crippling him.
I imagine that for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth did everything he could to keep a low profile, and to keep away from David. But now, all these years later, when Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own, David finds him and summons him to the palace. By all normal expectations, Mephibosheth probably thought that this was the end for him, and his son, too.
David undoubtedly recognized the potential political threat that Mephibosheth posed to him. And maybe a part of the way David’s decision to have him live in the king’s palace was a page torn out of Don Corleone’s playbook, to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.
But he was also concerned with something much more important than just that. David and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had had an intensely close, loving relationship, one that far surpassed any normal friendship. In reality, in the midst of the division between David and Jonathan’s own father, Jonathan’s heart and support were actually with David, even though he stayed on his father’s side out of a sense of obligation owed to his father. Because of the deep, steadfast love that the two had for each other, they had sworn a covenant of commitment, loyalty, and care, for one another and for each other’s families as well. Now, David was making good on his covenant with Jonathan, bringing Mephibosheth into his own household, restoring his grandfather’s property to him, and considering him one of his own sons in the royal household. In a sense, he was adopting Jonathan’s son as his own.
This was an amazing expression of grace that David was extending to Mephibosheth. But it was also an expression of hospitality and compassion – and undoubtedly one that David’s recommended against, in the name of personal and national security. Some people have said that this relationship between David and Mephibosheth is a representation of the relationship between us and God, and the unexpected grace that we receive from God. I guess in some sense that could be true, but I think it’s more an illustration of how we’re supposed to treat one another. David treated Mephibosheth with compassion in spite of the potential threat he posed, keeping his covenant and honoring the deep love that he’d had for Jonathan.
How many times have we withheld grace, or compassion, or hospitality to someone because we see them as a potential threat to our own safety, security, or well-being? How many times have we done that to people we’ve seen as a threat on a national scale? How many times have we done it on a personal level? The story of David and Mephibosheth point us toward a different way, a better way – the way of the kingdom of God.
Whatever else it might be, this story of David treating Jonathan’s child with grace and compassion should be a reminder that just as David and Jonathan were in a covenant of love, so are we in a loving covenant with God, too; one that requires us to extend grace and compassion to all of God’s children. When it’s easy, and especially when it’s hard. When it might even come at personal risk. When others would say we need to think of ourselves first.
It isn’t any secret that showing people this kind of grace and compassion can be very risky business. But we need to do it, and we can do it, because of the grace and compassion that God has already given us – that God has already deposited into our account, expecting us to give it to others, and to do it now, not later. We don’t even need to wait three days for the deposit to clear.
Thanks be to God.