(Starring Samuel L. Jackson as the aptly named Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film)
In the Roman world of Jesus’ time, there were many moral problems. There were famines, wars, diseases. There was harsh poverty and decadent luxury. There was political corruption, intrigue, abuse of authority. There was embezzlement, treason, armed insurgents who plotted to overthrow the government. There was pornography, promiscuity, bestiality, and pederasty. There was legalized prostitution, infanticide, and a corrupt system of entertainment that glorified gratuitous violence.
But when God Himself came to earth as a Man, he chose to vent the brunt of his moral outrage at one specific class of people:
Upstanding religious people who lived moral lives and had good Biblical theology.
Just a little something to think about the next time you see a bracelet that says “What would Jesus do?”
* * *
This is an obscure story in the Old Testament across which I stumbled several months ago, and which just now has been back in my mind for no special reason that I can tell. So like last time, here it is perhaps for someone’s edification. The story is found in 2 Samuel 10:
1 It happened after this that the king of the people of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his place. 2 Then David said, “I will show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent by the hand of his servants to comfort him concerning his father. And David’s servants came into the land of the people of Ammon.
“After this,” by the way, refers to the story of David and Mephibosheth, one of the most moving narratives of grace in the entire Hebrew Bible. The story in this next chapter also deals with grace, but in a rather different way.
There’s this Ammonite prince named Hanun. The man’s father dies, so King David very graciously sends some messengers to offer him condolences. So far, so good. It’s the decent thing to do. “I will show kindness to Hanun,” says David. You’d think the guy would be touched at David’s gesture. After all, it shows kindness and honor to both the father and the son. But watch Hanun’s response.
3 And the princes of the people of Ammon said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think that David really honors your father because he has sent comforters to you? Has David not rather sent his servants to you to search the city, to spy it out, and to overthrow it?”
Oh-kaaaay. So it seems there are two possible explanations for David sending out his servants. Either 1) He’s offering genuine condolences over the death of the king’s father, or 2) He’s using the pretext to send spies because he wants to overthrow the kingdom.
Admittedly both 1) and 2) could be consistent with the evidence. It’s the question of their motive that puts a spin on things. The first explanation takes the actions at face value and assumes that people are acting graciously. The second assumes that their kindness is a pretext. It assumes they’re really up to something bad and should be stopped.
Which does Hanun choose?
The second. He decides to assume the worst about their motives.
Now unless you know Hebrew, or you’re like me and you compulsively look up names in a lexicon, you’ve missed a significant point in this story. There’s a lot of irony in the subtext. The name “Hanun” literally translates as “Gracious.”
Considering his actions so far, that’s like telling a story about a girl named Joy who suffers from depression, or a selfish woman named Charity, or a guy named Rocky who’s a total wimp. Mr. Gracious is anything but.
And it only gets better:
4 Therefore Hanun took David’s servants, shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away.
Now if I was a king, and I thought some people were spies, I’d have them arrested and questioned. Maybe have some stiff words with the ambassador. Probably not too much more, especially if (as in this case) they were from a country that I was on friendly terms with.
That’s not how Hanun handles it. He doesn’t bother to get their side of the story; he takes them and publically shames them. He half-shaves their beards to make them look ridiculous, and sends them away with bare bottoms. This is a dreadful humiliation, even worse when you consider that in the Middle East, modesty and dignity are among the highest cultural values.
These men were coming on an errand of grace, to deliver a message of comfort. Hanun, the king whose name means “Gracious,” rejects them with a mortal insult.
Usually in the Bible, a person’s name gives a clue to his character. So why on earth would the man whose name is “Gracious” act the opposite way?
Maybe the rest of the clue is in his lineage. This king is introduced to us as “Hanun, son of Nahash.”
“Nahash” means “Snake.”
“Hanun, son of Nahash” means “Grace, son of Snake.”
It’s one thing when a person is an out-and-out snake. At least you have some idea how to handle him; you know what he can’t be trusted with, and you can probably even come to a decent understanding of sorts (at arm’s length, and watching your back). And it’s another thing altogether when a person is gracious and kind.
But in this case, we have a person who is called gracious, but who acts like he’s descended from a snake.
The worst kind of character you can have is to have all the outward trappings right but be wrong on the inside. If you’re going to be evil, at least be sincerely evil. Hanun presumably knows all about grace—it’s his name, after all. The name is right, but the conduct doesn’t match up. He calls himself gracious, but to quote the philosopher Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Even today we can see the same kind of irony. Some of the most graceless people I’ve ever known have been preoccupied with expounding what they call the “Doctrines of Grace.” I certainly don’t mean to just pick on Calvinists here—I know plenty of nice ones too, and rotten religion knows no denominational lines—but please, if you’re going to talk that much about grace, it really helps if you know how to show some.
Maybe that’s why Jesus railed against the Pharisees so much. They had all the proper morality. They claimed to live for God. So if they blow it, if their lives don’t match up to their message, it’s God who gets the bad name. If you claim to be gracious, but act like a snake, it’s not just that you besmirch your own character. You besmirch the concept of grace.
“If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” –Jesus (Matthew 6:23)
“Enough is enough! I’ve had it with this &@$(#%*# grace from this *%$#&@)!@ snake!” –Not quite Samuel L. Jackson. Close.
5 When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, “Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return.”
David shows compassion, giving the men a chance to save face and not be subjected to further humiliation. Meanwhile the plot thickens.
6 When the people of Ammon saw that they had made themselves repulsive to David….
…And this is where it goes completely over the top. I dare you to guess what happens next in this sentence. The people of Ammon realize that they have egregiously insulted David by Hanun’s “gracious” humiliation of his messengers. When they realize this, what do they do? Do they apologize? Send him a card? Whisper, “Real sorry about our king there, David; remember he doesn’t speak for all of us.”
… the people of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians of Beth Rehob and the Syrians of Zoba, twenty thousand foot soldiers; and from the king of Maacah one thousand men, and from Ish-Tob twelve thousand men.
They get together an army.
They realize they offended David. So they decide to hire an army and attack him.
They hire some local mercenary soldiers. Thirty-three thousand of them. To attack the person they offended. When they realized they offended him.
All together, please: “What the heck?”
One of the surest signs you’re dealing with a “Grace, son of Snake” type is that they simply can’t fathom why anybody would be legitimately offended by their behavior. Thus, when they realize someone is upset with them, they go on the warpath. Certainly the problem couldn’t be with them—they’ve been very gracious—so it must be your fault for having such a bad attitude! And such an ungrateful attitude can’t be tolerated!
I once saw a dismal example of this at a Bible college you might have heard of (but I’ll demur from disclosing its name; all the people involved have since moved on so it wouldn’t be fair). The editor of the college newspaper published a thoughtfully written editorial, praising some of the college departments but pointing out that in other areas their service could stand some improvement. Maybe, for instance, it would be good to have the campus doctor around more than eight hours a week?
In response, she received (and duly printed) a letter from the college administration, calling her “divisive,” saying she was “irresponsible and ignorant,” and concluding “You have to be wiser on this.”
Right. How could anyone complain about that quality of service?
7 Now when David heard of it, he sent Joab and all the army of the mighty men. 8 Then the people of Ammon came out and put themselves in battle array at the entrance of the gate. And the Syrians of Zoba, Beth Rehob, Ish-Tob, and Maacah were by themselves in the field. 9 When Joab saw that the battle line was against him before and behind, he chose some of Israel’s best and put them in battle array against the Syrians. 10 And the rest of the people he put under the command of Abishai his brother, that he might set them in battle array against the people of Ammon.
11 Then he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me; but if the people of Ammon are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. 12 “Be of good courage, and let us be strong for our people and for the cities of our God. And may the LORD do what is good in His sight.”
David quite rightly realizes that he has to call out the troops and defend himself.
What battle plan does a wise warrior use when he’s confronted with the wrath of “Grace, son of Snake”?
Everything has its Achilles’ heel, its vulnerable point, its fatal flaw. Superman had Kryptonite; Dracula had garlic and stakes; Samson had his hair; Achilles had… well, his heel. David confronts Grace-on-a-Snake with the one weapon it can’t stand up to: Real Grace.
Joab (David’s top general) outlines the strategy to his brother: “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me; but if the people of Ammon are too strong for you, then I will come and help you.”
If I’m in trouble, you be gracious and help me; and if you’re in trouble, I’ll be gracious and help you.
I won’t assume that you’re faking the trouble to get attention. I won’t believe that you’re in trouble because of a lack of faith. I won’t offer you meaningless platitudes about how sometimes bad things happen to good people. I won’t promise to help you and then bail on you when you need me.
I’ll do unto others as I would have them do unto me, and I’ll do you the courtesy of assuming you’ll do the same.
Against this strategy, how does Grace-on-a-Snake fare?
13 So Joab and the people who were with him drew near for the battle against the Syrians, and they fled before him. 14 When the people of Ammon saw that the Syrians were fleeing, they also fled before Abishai, and entered the city. So Joab returned from the people of Ammon and went to Jerusalem.
It’s completely routed. It’s helpless. Faced with real grace, the agents of Grace-on-a-Snake run away like the bunch of cowards that they are.
Real Grace is the one thing that Grace-on-a-Snake can’t stand against. It is the Kryptonite that destroys the power of “Grace, son of Snake.” The genuine thing exposes the hypocrisy. The truth shows up the lie.
One point of application suggests itself. I know some people who have rejected Christianity, or become deeply bitter toward it, because of the hypocritical and abusive behavior of many Christians. That’s somewhat understandable. But if you’re upset with the behavior of religious hypocrites, why throw out God? Wouldn’t it be an even more effective protest to learn to display God’s real grace and show the hypocrites up for what they are?
The narrative gives some more details of the battle, and then concludes:
…19 And when all the kings who were servants to Hadadezer saw that they were defeated by Israel, they made peace with Israel and served them. So the Syrians were afraid to help the people of Ammon anymore.
This is a true victory, and the best kind of victory to win. The kings saw that Grace-on-a-Snake was powerless when it was confronted with Real Grace. They couldn’t beat them, so they joined them. “They made peace with Israel and served them.” They started practicing Real Grace themselves. I think it was Abe Lincoln who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
That’s the power of Real Grace. Not only does it expose Grace-on-a-Snake as something you don’t want to side with, it promoted the growth of more Real Grace, and from the very people who a short time ago had thought it was worth their time to fight against them.
You want to defeat Grace on a Snake? Try some Real Grace.
“Love your enemies,
bless those who curse you,
do good to those who hate you,
and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”
–Jesus (Matthew 5:45-46)