Nathan said to David: “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel. I rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’ Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan answered David: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.”
What the prophet Nathan was to King David, the Church is to the State. Israel had its kings. But Israel also had its prophets.
The two offices- the former performing a civil function, the latter a religious one –had once been united under one leader. God’s original plan for Israel was that he should rule his people through his divinely anointed leaders through a kind of prophetic charism. In fact, early in Israel’s history, Moses, Joshua and the Twelve Judges were not only chosen by the Lord, but it was through them that he governed and shepherded his people. However, there came a time when the Israelites grew tired of God’s leadership. Hence, they demanded from Samuel, the last of the Judges, to be like other nations. And it just so happened that other nations had kings. Without saying as much, it was the Israelites way of expressing their disapproval of God’s reign over them.
But with this preference for a monarchy, human fallibility and corruption increased ten-fold within the government of Israel. Soon after Saul, the first king of Israel, mounted the throne to govern Israel, God began to raise up prophets to hold the kings accountable. The kingly and prophetic offices, once integrated into one office under the Judges, had been partitioned into two different offices.
This serves as the background for the First Reading (at the top of the page). King David was the second king of Israel. And although he had a heart for the Lord, he was a sinner. To make a long story short, he took a liking to another man’s wife. The woman's name was Bathsheba. But the other man, Urriah, happened to be a loyal soldier of King David. In order to eliminate his competition for Bathsheba, King David had Urriah killed. Indeed, the king of Israel had abused his royal power. Worse yet, he had offended God.
This is where the prophet Nathan steps in. The thing to know about prophets is that they are not servile. They know obedience to civil authority but their obedience is tempered by their obedience to a higher authority, namely, God's. Nor were they concerned in the least about human respect. Political power and social prestige did not deter them from speaking God's Word. This is a great lesson for the Church. As for priests and seminarians who cared too much about what others think of them, Cardinal James Gibbons, in 19th century, addressed these words to them: “You sacrifice principle to expediency, you subordinate the voice of God to the voice of man, you surrender your Christian liberty and manly independence, and you become the slave of a fellow creature."
Nathan was servant to David, but he was no slave. His duty was to speak the words of God to the king; even if these words were one of reproof and chastisement. And as we can garner from the First Reading, the prophet Nathan not only represented God’s justice to the King David, but he also was an advocate for the little guy, namely, Urriah. Sadly, his life was taken from him simply because the king coveted his wife. It is important to note that saying what Nathan said could have cost him his life. But he did it anyway.
Instead of condemning King David outright, the prophet Nathan told a parable. After all, people tend to be more objective about a moral case when it doesn’t involve them. So, Nathan said to David,
"Judge this case for me! In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. She shared the little food he had and drank from his cup and slept in his bosom. She was like a daughter to him. Now, the rich man received a visitor, but he would not take from his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the wayfarer who had come to him. Instead he took the poor man's ewe lamb and made a meal of it for his visitor."
Not knowing that he was the rich man in the story, King David became indignant and exclaimed that the rich man merits death. Then, as if to stand up and point his finger at the king, the prophet said: “You’re the man!” In other words, what you did to Urriah- O King! -is tantamount to what the rich man did to the poor man in the parable. This is why Nathan asked David, “Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?” To be sure, God’s punishment did visit the house of David but David himself would be spared.
As bad as David was, he did have a heart for the Lord. As such, he was cut to the heart when he heard the accusation leveled against him. So moved by God’s disapproval, he sat down and wrote Psalm 51. It begins with these words: “Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me...”
The prophet Nathan- probably not knowing what King David would do -courageously reproved him for his injustice. And wouldn’t you know it, the greatest king Israel ever had in the Old Testament was moved to repentance.
The Catholic Church too is a prophet. Like Nathan, she has a responsibility to use her prophetic voice so that the State may know God’s will and- at the very least -have the opportunity to repent of its injustices. But the State can never rid itself of its evils through repentance if the Church should fail to raise her voice and say to the State: “You’re the man!”