A prophet with a perilous mission
“And the Lord sent Nathan to David” (2 Sam 12:1). The context of Nathan’s mission is ominous. After committing adultery with Bathsheba and, in order to hide that sin, arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed, David has hardened his heart against graces of repentance and conversion. At this moment, he is not acting like a man with a heart like the heart of God (1 Sam 13:14). Nathan’s mission is to bring this homicidal heart to conversion.
The sacred text does not indicate that God provided his prophet with the strategy to bring about the king’s conversion. It simply says, “And the Lord sent Nathan to David,” and continues, “He came to him and said to him ….” (2 Sam 12:1). Nathan must have realized the gravity of the situation, and the risk involved. Why should the king treat God’s prophet any differently than he had poor Uriah? It is easy to imagine Nathan immediately going into vigil and fasting mode, desperately pleading for heavenly wisdom. His mission is a matter of life and death: spiritual for the king, bodily for the prophet.
The biblical narrative confirms that his prayer was richly answered. The prophet approaches the king to report a case of crass injustice. One man, who had an abundance of sheep, stole his neighbor’s one and only sheep to prepare it for a guest. The text is hyperbolic. The man with a large flock knows none of his sheep by name. In contrast, “the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Sam 12:3).
Nathan knew how to reach the heart of a shepherd whom God called to become a king.
Conversion of the heart
The story had its intended effect. “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5–7). Nathan’s case of injustice was a spiritual defibrillation for David. Jolted from moral cardiac arrest, the king begins to think in terms of truth and justice again. A point of entry has opened to God’s grace.
With this, we glean a first lesson from David’s conversion, a lesson that St. John Paul II once put this way:
The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. (Veritatis splendor, 3)
Conversion unto salvation is an affair or the heart, or conscience. “God, Who probes the heart, awaits us there.” There, “we are alone with God, Whose voice echoes in our depths” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 14 and 16). The only place in the universe where a personal encounter with the living God, and thus conversion, can occur is the human heart, or conscience. The first effect of God’s word is to draw us there. And, the first and most fundamental commitment we can make to combat a culture of secularism and relativism is to embrace the graces of the Season of Lent and to be men and women of the heart, men and women of conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary” of every person (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 16). Conscience is, by definition, a religious in nature. No wonder, then, that the primary strategy of God’s enemies is to make every attempt to prevent people from entering their own consciences.
Joel’s exhortation to return to God will all our heart—with our conscience—will remain scattered seed that cannot take root so long as we fail to frequent our own hearts. This is why he calls for the internalization of religious acts of penance, for the rending of hearts rather than garments (Joel 2:12–13)—in this way echoing the exhortations of Moses and Jeremiah for the circumcision of hearts (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4). The value of the traditional forms of Lenten penance—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—derives from their being rooted in the heart, or conscience. To expand a line from the Catechism, which recapitulates the message of the prophets: “If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer and acts of fasting and almsgiving are in vain” (CCC, 2562).
The judgment about sin
Returning to the conversion of David, to make a just judgment, a judgment based on the truth, is the very office of a king. So, it was normal for a prophet to bring a case of injustice before him. But, while David thinks he is judging a situation concerning someone else, for Nathan this is preparation for another judgment, this one concerning David himself. Thus, Nathan takes the decisive step when, following the king’s verdict against the man who stole his neighbor’s precious lamb, he says, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). There is a perfect parallel between Nathan’s story about sheep and David’s treachery. For, at the time that David slept with Bathsheba, he could have slept with any of his several wives at the time; instead, he took the one and only wife of Uriah.
“You are the man.” There is no place for David to hide. He stands “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” verifying that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12–13). Nathan’s prophetic word appealed to the king’s office to judge and thereby drew him back into the moral dimension, into the sanctuary of his conscience, which he had desecrated by despising the word of the Lord. In so doing, the prophet placed the king in the position of being judged by the truth of God and of participating in that judgment.
“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). God did not send Nathan to accuse David of having sinned. That would result in the judgment about sin coming from without. But God wants the judgment about sin to come from within. So, He sent Nathan in order to bring David to accuse himself of having sinned. This is the second lesson about conversion and God’s wisdom to draw from David’s encounter with the prophetic word of God. God wants us to participate in the judgment about sin. He wants us to see what He sees. He desires us to be one with Him in the truth about sin.
This is simply a corollary of His desire for full communion with us. God does not want to be alone in knowing the truth about sin. Having made us in His image, He has endowed us with the dignity of responsible freedom in the truth. He treats us in keeping with that dignity. In fact, God’s goal in revealing Himself as mercy is to restore the dignity that has been lost or diminished by sin. Reflecting on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, St. John Paul II stated that sin is “the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship,” and that God’s mercy “is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity” (Dives in misericordia, 6).
The goal of God’s mercy, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is to restore the dignity that has been diminished or even lost by sin. Out of regard for that very dignity, God calls us to participate in its restoration:
When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of truthful confession, the act of turning again to God, is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur (Cardinal Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal, 142).
The New Covenant: The gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ
This brings us back to conscience, and the final lesson of David’s conversion. Human dignity is inextricably bound up with conscience because God’s voice, and thus His law, echo in the human conscience:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which … holds him to obedience … always summoning him to love good and to avoid evil … a law written by God; to obey God’s law is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Rom 2:14–16).… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 16)
The centrality of conscience in Christian anthropology is rooted in the apostolic Church’s understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant that the Lord will write on the hearts of His people (Jer 31:31–34). Jesus clearly has this in mind when He institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, referring to the sacred chalice as “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). The most complete exposition of this comes in chapters eight through ten of the Letter to the Hebrews. Whereas Jeremiah spoke of the heart, Hebrews speaks of conscience. The new covenant is the gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ (Heb 9:9, 14). Christ confers this gift by virtue of His paschal mystery, through His Church and the Sacrament of Baptism (Heb 10:20–22; 1 Pet 3:21).
Lent is the liturgical season of preparation for accompanying Jesus through His paschal mystery, for the forgiveness of sins, during the celebration of the Sacred Triduum. Lent is like a great prolongation of the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass, during which we “acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries,” that is, to participate fully, consciously, and actively in the eucharistic celebration of the paschal mystery. Lent is a season of intense stewardship for the baptismal gift of a conscience purified by the blood, that is, the merciful love, of Christ. By thanking Christ for this gift, we merit to receive yet greater graces for the continuing purification of our consciences and a deeper participation in His paschal mystery. By deepening our awareness of the evil of sin, we also deepen our awareness of the depths of God’s mercy.
With faith and hope in God’s mercy, during Lent we make the words of the repentant King David our own: “But who can detect his own errings? Purify me of my hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). Because the Lord desires that we participate in our own conversion and in the judgment about sin, we know how He will answer this petition. Through His word, He will enlighten our consciences: “to do its work grace must uncover sin so as to convert our hearts …. Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God, by his Word and by his Spirit, casts a living light on sin” (CCC, 1484).
All of this constitutes the grace of the new covenant, which Lent calls us to ratify anew by confronting the truth about sin with the truth about God’s mercy in our consciences:
Conversion requires convincing of sin; it includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and love: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus in this “convincing concerning sin” we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler. (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 32)
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