How do you tell the king that he is guilty of adultery, murder, the theft of another man’s wife and has sinned against the LORD – without losing your life? This is the dilemma which Nathan the prophet faced when sent by the LORD to confront king David. In contrast to Nathan, when John the Baptist told king Herod something similar (Herod had taken his brother’s wife as his own), he lost his head (Mark 6:17-29).
Nathan the prophet took a bold, courageous, but more tactful approach. He told king David a story, or more accurately, a parable. Everyone likes a story, especially kings. You might remember it. Rich man, lots of flocks and sheep is contrasted with a poor man who owns just one little ewe lamb. It is the family pet. The rich man steals poor man’s sheep to feed a dinner guest he is entertaining. Hearing the story, David is outraged at the theft of the poor man’s sheep. David can see the injustice and angrily calls for the legal restitution of what was stolen and that it is to be fourfold (Ex 22:1). Additionally, the rich man’s punishment is to be death. But Nathan now has David’s attention. With Nathan’s charge: ‘You are the man’, David is able to see himself as the very man of the parable who has acted unjustly. The parable has created the moment of recognition for David as he has himself rendered judgement on the injustice of privileged ‘taking’ what rightfully belongs to another. Parables like Nathan’s, and like Jesus’, interrogate us and help us to see ourselves as God sees us. It is why Jesus warns us about being quick to judge others (Matt 7:1-5; John 8:7).