2 Samuel 4:4, 9:1-13
July 22, 2018
William G. Carter
Saul’s son Jonathan had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled; and, in her haste to flee, it happened that he fell and became lame. His name was Mephibosheth...
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.
It is an astonishing story. For all of his swashbuckling exploits and his macho persona, David was capable of kindness.
Here’s the story. A lot has happened since the last time we were together. King Saul and his son Jonathan were in a battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. The battle did not go well. Jonathan and two of his brothers are killed in battle. King Saul also dies in a questionable and dishonorable manner.
On that terrible day, the news comes that Saul and Jonathan have died. It seems Jonathan had a five-year-old son named Mephibosheth. He was just a boy, tended by a servant. She scooped him up, ready to run away and carry him to safety. Somehow she stumbled, the little boy fell. He broke his legs or his feet; the orthopedic surgeon was unable to give us a proper diagnosis. All we know is the little boy never walked again.
The nurse servant got him out of there. She hid him in a little town, out in the middle of nowhere. And there he stayed while the nation went through more turmoil. Apparently Saul had a fourth son who should have been out in the battlefield with his father and his brothers. When Saul and the others were killed, it was the general of the army, General Abner, who declared this fourth son, Ish-bosheth, should be the new king.
I guess neither of them had been reading the Bible. If they had, they would have known that David had already been secretly anointed as the next king. A couple of renegade soldiers knew it, because they cut off the head of Ish-bosheth, thinking that David would approve of their help. He did not, and that’s all we have to say about that. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of political maneuvering and military nonsense that went on for a while.
And the whole time, Mephibosheth is hunkering down in a little village that nobody would be able to find. You see, this is the way it worked: when the new king comes to power, he gets rid of anybody related to the old king. There’s no continuation of authority. The new broom sweeps clean, although in that day, it was usually a hatchet or a sword that did the sweeping. They were brutal times.
Maybe not so different from our own. I will never forget when a few of us were having lunch in a small café in Port-au-Prince, on our first mission trip to Haiti. A well-dressed man walked in and sat two tables away from our group. Our guide froze. She looked terrified. After we left, she explained that man had been a leader of the secret police for Papa Doc, the notorious dictator who once ran the country. She said, “We should have gotten rid of him while we had the chance.”
This was the way a transfer of power happened in ancient times: eliminate anybody from the old palace. And then David, the brand new king, asks, “Is there still anybody left from the house of Saul?” They find one of the old palace servants, a man named Ziba. As the story will later reveal, Ziba is an unsavory fellow. For now, he bows before the new king, and then he rats on Mephibosheth. Ziba tells David how to locate the young man in the town that nobody could find. More servants are dispatched, and Mephibosheth is brought to the palace.
So imagine what he’s feeling. The Philistines had it in for his father, his grandfather, and his uncles – and they are still out there somewhere, making trouble. His other uncle thought he should be the king, but he was eliminated rather quickly. This new king David is not from his family. At best, David had married his aunt, but by all accounts, that marriage is not going well. David has a growing reputation. His power is growing exponentially and he summons Mephibosheth to the palace.
They bring Mephibosheth, who is unable to stand on his own, unable to walk, unable to run away. And maybe the young man knows that the new king David has already issued a decree: “Nobody blind or lame shall be admitted into the king’s house (2 Samuel 5:8).” That decree is staring him in the face: “Nobody blind or lame shall be admitted into the king’s house.”
So David calls out his name, “Mephibosheth!” Yes, sire. There’s a long pause, and then David says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you are going to eat at my table. I regard you as one of my family.”
It is an unexpected move, the last thing Mephibosheth could ever imagine. He knew where he came from. He knew what was usually done to members of the last ruling party.
And he had this disability. As one of the scholars says, “The term ‘crippled in both feet’ implies four characteristics: (1) economic vulnerability, (2) physical vulnerability, (3) permanent immobility, and (4) religious alienation.” That is, not only did the greater society think of him as marginal, but that God had somehow declared him expendable.
Mephibosheth calls himself “a dead dog.” He says, “Who am I, that the king should look upon a dead dog such as I?” (9:8).
David knows who he is: this is the son of Jonathan, his dearest friend. And this is the son of Saul, the first king that God gave to the people. As David and Jonathan made a covenant to always love one another (1 Sam 18:3), the covenant continues in the next generation. It’s like the covenant that David’s great-great-grandma Ruth made with Naomi: “Your people shall be my people; where you go, I will go (Ruth 1:15).”
David knows who he is: this is the son of Jonathan, worthy of his continuing kindness. And David knows something more: Mephibosheth is also a child of God, worthy of an even greater kindness.
In the nuances of the story, David asks at first, “Is there anybody left in the house of Saul, that I might show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (9:3) But then he goes on to ask, again, “Is there anybody left in the house of Saul, that I might show the kindness of God?” (9:3). That’s what he says, the kindness of God… the word here is chesed, usually translated “loving-kindness.” This is continuing kindness, unearned covenantal kindness. It’s the closest thing in the Jewish scriptures to the New Testament word “grace.”
So this is an enormous moment, if only because it is the only time in Jewish Bible where it speaks of “the kindness of God.” And that kindness is not only shown to the grandson of an enemy who is also the son of a friend. It is kindness shown to a man whose disability has made him vulnerable in his world and therefore expendable.
I think we know the lesson here, without overdrawing it. But it is worthy of emphasis again, with a remarkable story like this one. Who are we going to welcome? Those who are fit, healthy, unblemished, and physically capable? Or do we welcome the rest of us, who may have some part of us that is unfit, unhealthy, a bit blemished, with physical challenges?
It would be enough to simply recount a few stories. Back in the early nineties, when we were planning to renovate this building, we met with architects who were capable and imaginative. Our building task force was every bit as capable, maybe even more so. At one point, as we looked over some blueprints, one of the architects said, “Now, you know, the church is exempt from having to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act. That could save you some money.”
The task force looked at him, sized him up as well intentioned. Then one of them said, “We know we are not bound by a law to make this building more accessible to people with disabilities, but why wouldn’t we?’ The opinion was unanimous. There had to be cuts in the curbs, doors and aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, and other small but critical decisions to make rooms like this available and accessible to all. How else would we show the kindness of God?
A few years after that, I had a friend who was the activities director at a nursing home. She asked if she could bring over some residents for a Sunday morning worship service, and we said, “Sure!” We pulled out a pew so a few wheelchairs could get in, and she showed up with eight people. No problem; we are resourceful Presbyterians. Another pew was taken out, then another, and everybody rolled in. We had enough forethought to make extra large-print bulletins and asked the organist to play a little louder than usual.
In a hospitable gesture, the Deacons offered to prepare a nice dinner for our guests. Dieticians were consulted, tables were set, spaces prepared for the wheelchairs, hosts and hostesses were deployed. After the benediction, we suddenly discovered the real challenge: how would we get eight people in wheelchairs to the room downstairs? There was no elevator.
Some of the prevailing voices of that era said, “There’s nobody here who needs an elevator; we’re not going to spend the money on an elevator.” Well, of course there was nobody here who needed an elevator, because the people who needed an elevator weren’t going to bother with a building that they couldn’t get around in. They stayed home.
Suddenly, despite all best intentions, eight people were here in wheelchairs that morning, and we had tables set for them downstairs. And it was the second week of December. It was snowing and there was ice on the sidewalk. As we wheeled our guests out to the sidewalk, in the snow and ice, and backed them down the hill to the lower level, there was a moment when three of our guests almost became Catholics.
We can laugh at ourselves now, but there is nothing funny about welcoming Mephibosheth. The recurring question of every church, of every decent human being, is “How might we welcome those that the world shuts out?”
Now, granted, kindness was not the most obvious character trait of David, Israel’s favorite king. Goliath was not the beneficiary of David’s large and generous heart. Neither were the two hundred Philistines that he carved up to win the hand of his first wife in marriage. Neither, for that matter, was his first wife highly respected; David had a hard time staying home.
Yet here’s this thin slice of experience, when Mephibosheth is welcomed and fed as one of his own, as one of God’s own. Just like our own uneven experiences of welcoming those whom the world pushes out or pushes away outcasts, there are the occasional moments when we get it right. And the vision is set before us: how would it be to truly welcome everybody --- in the name of God?
A thousand years after David, there came a holy man, a healer who touched the untouchables and healed whatever he could. And this holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, had such an enormous heart that the people of his time called him the “Son of David.”
One day, he said, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…and you will be blessed (Luke 14:13-14).” I like to think he learned that lesson from great-great-grandpa David. But I think he probably learned it from his Father in heaven. For such is the kingdom of God, a dominion where everybody experiences God’s kindness – and there are no barriers, boundaries, or stumbling blocks, physical or otherwise.
In the meantime, we have saints from time to time who remind us what the kindness of God looks like, how it feels. I think of the Rev. Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers. In the new documentary about his life and work, there is a clip of Fred chatting with Jeff Erlanger, a child in a wheelchair. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. These were not tears of sympathy or pity. Nobody dared to say, “there, but for the grace of God…” Oh no.
Because we know what David could see at his table. Grace is when you befriend a young man with profound disabilities and treat him as a child of God – because he is. All of us are.
All of us.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Elias Yemane, Mephibosheth: Transformation by a Covenant Love (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing ) 27.