Given the culture wars of the past 50 years, this reading from 2 Samuel has become one of the most over-scrutinized passages in the Bible about an intriguing love between two men. Mourning the death of his friend Jonathan, David exclaims, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
Just imagine how this would play on today’s news channels if a world leader or a celebrity were to say something like that. You’d see several talking heads analyzing that one sentence to death. Some would play it up as an admission of a love affair that was strictly forbidden according to the other parts of the Bible. Others would play it down as a really intense friendship—after all, can’t we have those without falling in love? Everybody would worry that one sentence to death, without ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, they’d just lose interest and go on to obsess over something else—whatever holds the public’s brief attention span.
Actually that news channel scenario isn’t all that different from the way biblical scholars have been debating this passage. Some actually do believe that there was a romantic relationship going on here. Others insist that it couldn’t be anything of the sort.
I can’t follow either extreme—doesn’t that sound typically Episcopalian?
I’m convinced that David and Jonathan discovered a love that defied the customs and categories of their culture. But we’re never going to know all the details about how they expressed that love. And either way, if we could transport them to the present and ask them what they think about our recent debates over marriage, I’m sure their first reaction would be one of total bafflement.
For Jonathan and David, marriage was a matter of deciding which man gets to own a woman—or several women. Love was always nice to have, but not a requirement. It was all about men treating women as property. I don’t think we’d want their input on questions about marriage today. We can’t believe that anybody should be treated as property, and we’ve come to believe that, in marriage, mutual love should be THE crucial ingredient, not an optional add-on. So let’s not try to make Jonathan and David teach us where they have nothing to teach.
But there’s one detail about their unconventional love that takes us beyond our current cultural debates, and that is how God enters the story in a new way.
Jonathan first saw David when David came before his father, king Saul. And immediately, he recognized a soul mate. In fact, that’s almost word for word how the Bible describes it: “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). He was so taken with David that he took off his own royal garb and handed it over to David (v. 4)—not a politically prudent move when you’re the heir to the throne.
Jonathan was so drawn to David that he defied the political wisdom and family duties of his day. David, too, came to love Jonathan “as he loved his own life” (1 Samuel 20:17). This was no ordinary friendship. It put both of them in danger of their lives with Saul. When everything began to look hopeless, they risked their lives one last time to meet secretly and confirm their defiant love. They wept together, and, yes, they kissed (men were not hung up over kissing each other back then), and then they parted with this solemn vow to each other: “[God] shall be between me and you … forever” (1 Samuel 20:42).
“God shall be between me and you … forever.” This is where God enters the story in a new, unexpected way. Back then the expected way to see God in people’s lives was when they had success, especially if it involved winning a battle. We’re told that God was with Jonathan whenever he won a battle and that God was with David whenever he won a battle. No surprises there.
But the story of Jonathan and David is not a story of overwhelming success. It’s a heartbreaking story. The moment they make their solemn vow to each other, they’re separated—separated by family obligations and political realities—and they never see each other again while they’re alive. All David can do to honor their solemn vow is mourn Jonathan’s death and look after his surviving son. It’s not a typical success story. It’s the story of a love that persists through the pain of separation and death. And that story is a new story of God’s presence: God shall be between me and you … forever.
We who gather today hear this story and can’t help thinking of another story of a love that persists through the pain of separation and death. For us it’s become the fundamental storyline of the Bible. In Jesus’ life, execution and risen life we see God’s power at work where we didn’t expect it. In Jesus we discover God to be the ultimate victim of our conflicted lives, rising beyond all reckoning as the ultimate victor who can’t be driven away. God is now between me and you, and me and you and them, forever.
This is the power that makes God truly God—not the power to destroy enemies but the power to turn all of us from enmity to reconciliation, no matter how long or how often our conflicts get in the way. God remains between me and you, and between me and you and them, forever—even when conflicts drive us apart.
We need to hear that today, because conflicts still drive us apart. Not since the Civil War has our nation been as polarized as it is now. But God remains between me and you, and between me and you and them, our polar opposites, forever.
Another complication about the story of Jonathan’s and David’s love is that neither of them could stop loving Saul. Nor could Saul himself completely stop loving either of them. David and Saul in particular yearned for a way to be reconciled, but they couldn’t figure out a politically viable way to do that. Things were just too conflicted. So when David mourns Saul’s death, he’s mourning for a reconciliation they both wanted but were never able to achieve. And with the benefit of hindsight we can say that God was mourning with him. God remained, not just between him and Jonathan, but among him and Jonathan and Saul, even as conflicts drove them apart.
When decisions go our way, it’s so tempting to say that God is with us more than with those other folk who can’t agree with us. But that’s not what David’s lament tells us, and it’s not what Jesus’ story tells us. God remains between me and you, and between me and you and them, forever. The power that makes God truly God is not the power to destroy enemies, but the power to turn all of us from enmity to reconciliation, no matter how long or how often our conflicts get in the way. So if you’re tempted to “unfriend” somebody, don’t do it. God isn’t giving up on any of us, so why should we?
God remains between me and you, and between me and you and them, forever.