Jesus, in an incident told slightly differently across 3 gospels, gives us two commandments that he says are the greatest. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And the second is like it. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two commandments,” he says, “depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22.40).
The verb in both of these commandments is the word love. If we believe Jesus that all the rest of the Bible depends on these two commandments, we can understand the rest of the Bible as a response to the follow-up question: “What does love look like?” What does Jesus mean when he tells us to love? The Bible is the story of God’s love for us. It is less of an answer than a conversation. It is a collection of moments in which God’s love was revealed. It begins with Creation, in which God loved the world into being. It continues through God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, God’s covenant with Israel, and eventually Jesus. The cross is the perfect example and fulfillment of love.
If that’s the case, then we should ask every story in the Bible the same question: What does this story tell us about the love of God? Today’s story is not a feel good story. But even here, the love of God is revealed.
The history that leads up to Absalom’s rebellion is long, brutal, and has no heroes. If you haven’t read it, just know that it’s got as much blood and sex than anything you’ll see on TV, more backstabbing than Game of Thrones. The whole book of 2nd Samuel is like this. It begins when David becomes king, and reveals as well as any story can that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
David wasn’t leaving his palace much in those days. He had drama of his own to deal with. And Absalom, his once banished son, was slick enough to take advantage. He spent years undermining his father with the people, and then stole off to Hebron and had himself crowned king, with David unaware. David had to flee with those loyal to him and live in the wilderness, pursued like a deer. In a very short time Absalom took everything from David: his nation, his city, his palace, his household. David and his allies barely escape with their lives.
And yet, when his army goes out in battle against the usurper, David has one thing on his mind: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” In the aftermath of the battle, Absalom gets hung up in a tree and David’s general Joab pierces him in his side and kills him. When a runner comes to bring news from the battle to David, David does not ask about his own armies or whether or not they won. He says, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” That’s all he can think of, “How is my son?” When he hears of Absalom’s fate he cries out in heartbreaking agony. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
These are not the words of a king. These are the words of a parent. It doesn’t matter what Absalom has done to him and his house. David still loves him. David’s side has been victorious, and he should be glad. Instead, he mourns. Though his kingdom, his family, and his very life are at stake, he cannot stop being a dad. He cannot stop loving his child. He has 99 sheep to take care of, but he would give them all for his one lost lamb.
What does love look like in this story? It looks like David’s cry for his son. David’s cry is God’s cry. Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son! We witness this cry when Jesus is on the cross. God’s cry is the Temple curtain twain in two, the earthquakes, the dead rising from their tombs. It is the cry of one who would move heaven and earth for their beloved. In Jesus’s last moments, he cries out too, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” This is God’s cry as well. The love of God is the union of these two moments. In the cross, God is both David and Absalom. God is both the heartbroken parent and the abandoned Son. And yet, God in Father and Son are bound together by the love that is stronger than death. And through the very heartbreak and pain that causes them to cry out, sin and death and are conquered for us.
This is what love looks like in our story, because to love is to be vulnerable. Love is dangerous, not because you’re going to get arrested for loving someone (with a few exceptions), but because you’re going to get hurt. To love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to someone, to give them the chance to hurt you, whether they want to or not. Love is an act of resistance, not because love is such an uncommon thing, but because love is fundamentally selfless. To love someone is to choose someone else’s happiness over your own. Would that I had died for thee. And in a culture that centers the pursuit of our own pleasure at the expense of everyone else, every selfless act is an act of resistance. An act of incredible power.
The story of the love of God is the story of the power of being helplessly in love. It is the story of a God who, though people rebel and reject, offers steadfast faithfulness that endures forever. It is the story of a God who could watch from a distance, but instead chooses to come down in the flesh, to know our pain and suffering, to sit with us in our misery, to experience the abject despair of pain, and the heartbreaking impotency of being able to do nothing about it. And because God knows that pain. Because God is helplessly in love. Because God dared to be vulnerable, all of our pain and misery and anguish are God’s. They are Godly. They are made holy by the presence of our vulnerable, steadfast, faithful God.
We are never more close to God than when we feel abandoned and hopeless, for our cry is God’s cry. We are never more like God than when we suffer in love, because our cry is God’s cry. And we are never more surprised, by the overwhelming power of love than on Easter morning, when we pass through the grave of suffering into the realm of eternal life, and our cries are turned to joy. Because God’s resurrection is our resurrection, God’s love is our inheritance, which pulls us through heartbreak into victory over sin and death.
God, who has every power in the world chooses to be helplessly in love. God chooses to be vulnerable. God chooses to experience the impotence of the parent losing a child, and to know the despair of dying alone.
And at that moment of absolute despair, the cry of a heartbroken father and an abandoned son, the power of love is revealed. Love has the power to move mountains, love has the power to bring new life where there was nothing but death, love has the power to tear open anything that can separate us from what is good and holy and true.
This is what love looks like.
When you cry out in suffering and in pain, God cries out too, with the agony of a parent who loves their child. When you are abandoned on the cross, you are not alone. In these places and in these moments, God has chosen to become one with you, to share in your travail and pain, to dwell in the vulnerable fear of love, and to show you the way through, from the grave to eternal life.
The moment of the cross we see God’s heartbreak at the loss of his Son. Love has rendered him vulnerable.
And yet, at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, it is God on the cross as well. God is in the place of the vulnerable—the abandoned, forgotten, dying son on the cross.
David’s love for Absalom reflects God’s love for us in that David’s love for Absalom is unconditional.
Absalom’s death reflects Jesus death in that he ends up hung in a tree, and pierced in his side. Absalom’s death is like Jesus in some details, but is it like Jesus in an allegorical/metaphorical way? Both are strung up in a tree, both are pierced in their sides.
The love of God is the union of these two moments. In the cross, God is both David and Absalom, he is both the heartbroken father and the abandoned Son.
This is what love looks like. It is to care enough about our neighbor that our hearts are broken by their deaths, even though they may be our enemies. This is what God’s love is for you. This is what I hope my love may be for God. With all my heart, and with all my mind, and with all my strength.
Absalom has rebelled against him, has attacked him, has forced him out of his life, and indeed even to flee from the country. Yet David does not stop loving.
This is what God’s love is. In spite of all our rebellion, God’s love endures.
If David, if a guy who is kind of a jerk, can have this sort of love for his son, what must God’s love look like? How powerful must it be, how willing must it be to suffer and to endure and to love unconditionally?
99 sheep to care for, but he ignores them all for this one lost sheep.
Absalom was beautiful and slick. He could talk a dog off a meat truck. He spent years undermining his dad to earn the love of the people of Israel. After several years, he made the plans for his moment, and arranged for his allies to crown him king in Hebron. David is forced to flee Jerusalem with those loyal to him, and live in the wilderness. Absalom takes everything from David: his nations, his city, his palace, his concubines. The forces loyal to David barely escape with their lives.