The Mystery of Agency

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

In this week’s Old Testament reading, we come to the climax of Absalom’s rebellion against his father, David, and the culmination of David’s own actions as King of Israel. Here we find David’s character – his weaknesses and his strengths – summed up. The story line follows David’s displacement from Jerusalem, the espionage and strategy leading to war against Absalom, and the King’s return. The lectionary highlights David’s disposition toward his son and the seemingly inevitable course of violence.

David’s desire for his son to be spared in the imminent attack upon his forces echoes his willingness for reconciliation following Absalom’s exile upon the killing of Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28-29). There, he joined in the prayer of a woman (a proxy for Joab) that the Lord be invoked so that “the avenger of blood slay no more.” (2 Samuel 14:11) According to the woman, David’s ruling that a man—her alleged son—who killed his own brother during a fight will be protected against vengeance, implied that he should “bring his banished one (Absalom) home again.” David, desiring the reconciliation that only forgiveness can bring, seeks to forgive Absalom.

Yet the readings highlight David’s powerlessness to do as he wishes. This is foreshadowed in verse 3, when his declaration to go out into battle with his soldiers and commanders is met with a sharp rebuff: “you shall not go out.” In response, he can only resign himself to the will of his retinue, saying “Whatever seems best to you, I will do.’” (2 Samuel 18:4) As his kingship is given as the reason for making him stay behind, he leans on his office when he tries to make his words carry out his intention. “Deal gently with the young man Absalom, for my sake,” was his order. (18:5, emphasis mine) Even though the chronicler makes clear that David is heard by “all the people,” it’s soon apparent that the king is not in control.

Human agency – the power to choose and act in the world – grows elusive in the passages that follow. The battle spreads “over the face of all the country.” In a phrase that should puzzle those who believe war is determined by the art of combat, we are told that, “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.” (18:8) And then Absalom, who apparently desired to flee the retinue of David, finds himself hanging by his head from the branches of an oak tree to be gazed out by any who happen by. After depicting his circumstance, the lectionary jumps to, “And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.” (18:15)

When the lectionary selection picks up again, the great king (much humbled) is at the gates of a city on the east side of the Jordan River, waiting anxiously for a messenger to come and tell him what momentous things have occurred. He is, in other words, at the mercy of servants. One of these, Ahimaz, though a trusted servant, lacks the courage in the moment to tell him what happened to Absalom, despite his good intentions. (David gets the real story from a Cushite.) Ahimaz greets David with “shalom”—all is well—and then announces that his enemies have been defeated. Betraying his true preoccupation, without a pause David asks, “But is it well with the young man, Absalom?”

David’s powerlessness is nowhere clearer than in the eagerness with which he asks this question. Real peace, it seems, lies for him in the possibility of being reconciled with his son. The depth of his desire for shalom – for all to be well – with his son is revealed in his tear-filled cry, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (18:33)

There’s a puzzle in theological ethics about the relation of God’s grace and our own agency or freedom. If God as creator is all-powerful, how can my actions be my own? One might imagine David, from a position decidedly not academic, contemplating this puzzle as he sees his deep desire overridden by violent events beyond his control, if not in all ways foreign. He is here, we might imagine, hurled into the mystery of human agency theologically considered—human agency, that is, as interwoven with the living God.

Great theologians like Aquinas treated this puzzle formally by making distinctions within the concept of “cause.” To say that God is creator of human agents is to say that God causes us to be as human agents—as agents who act in freedom. That God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being means that God is the only one who can cause our actions without doing violence to our freedom.

This issue of human agency helps explain why when Christians—or better, the Church—reads this story, we are propelled to the New Testament’s depiction of the Word of God. There we find a God who promises he has begun the process of making whole by gathering us up in our brokenness. Human agency must for us be “in Christ,” the bread of life and the font of action.

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