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Taking the Scenic Route: A Contempt Roundabout – Mark 6:14-29; 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12-19

So often, we think we know what a Scripture passage is all about, only to discover later that things are far more complicated than we first thought. Take our story from 2 Samuel 6 for example. Every time I’ve heard this story preached on, David’s undignified dancing before the Lord was compared with Michal, David’s wife, despising him in her heart as she watched his emotional display. Every time I’ve read this passage on my own, I’ve read it as a lesson in not caring what other people think. If the way I worship God is offensive to someone else, I need to keep on doing it anyway. The moral of the story, as I was taught, was that faithfulness was more important than popularity. David was the hero of the story, and Michal was held up as a stereotypical judgmental and nagging person, someone who let what other people thought get in the way of what was most important.

And so, when I opened this passage to study more deeply in preparation for this week’s sermon, I fixated on that last verse. It says, “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” She saw him and she despised him because of what he was doing. I decided to dig more deeply into the word “despised,” and what I discovered is twofold: first, when this same story about Michal and David is told in 1 Chronicles, the exact same word is used of Michal’s reaction to David’s dancing; second, the word for “despised” can also mean “to hold in contempt.” When Michal saw David dancing before the Lord, she held him in contempt, she despised him, she looked down on him as though he were not even human.

At first, I was tempted to take this passage the way I had heard it taught for so many years along the way: David was faithful, and Michal couldn’t handle the way it made her look. She was embarrassed and she felt bitterness in her heart. I even read a commentary on this passage that suggested all of the marriage problems between Michal and David were Michal’s fault because she was “pouty” and had “a bitter heart.” Michal was listed as one of the “Bad Girls” in the Bible in a very popular book, after all. Wouldn’t it be easy if we could look at David and Michal as opposites – David who was flamboyantly faithful and the Michal who was bitter and brooding? 

It’s tempting to look at David and Michal as opposites when it comes to our relationship with God and with each other, but there is more to Michal’s story than we get from this story. In order to get a fuller picture, we have to back up to the beginning of David and Michal’s relationship. 

In 1 Samuel 18, Saul – who was King of Israel at that time – wanted to find a way to get rid of David without bringing guilt on himself. He was jealous of David and angry about David’s popularity among the people. Saul hatches a convoluted plan to get rid of David. He tells David that he can marry Saul’s oldest daughter Merab if David is willing to fight against the Philistines. Saul hoped that the Philistines, who were mighty warriors, would kill David in the process. David declines the offer. He says it wouldn’t be right for him to marry the daughter of the king. Saul’s plan was foiled.

But then we find this little verse in 1 Samuel 18:20 that changes everything: “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David.” This is the only time in the Bible when we are told a woman loved a man. Saul finds out that his youngest daughter loves David, and he’s thrilled. He offers his younger daughter to David in exchange for 100 Philistine foreskins – again with the thought that such a risky task would be the end of David. Imagine it. Saul knows Michal loves David, and yet Saul uses her as a bargaining chip. She uses her love and affection for David as a trap, all the while hoping that David will die as he fights for Michal. 

Saul’s plan failed and David was successful against the Philistines. Michal marries David and loves him, and the situation makes Saul hate David even more than he did before. He was afraid because he knew that the Lord was with David. Things were not going to go Saul’s way. Later, Saul surrounded David and Michal and planned to have David killed the following morning. But Michal, who loved David, warned him that he was in danger and helped him to escape.

So, what happened? What happened that turned Michal’s love and devotion for David into contempt? What turned her heart from loving to despising this man in her life?

What I would like to suggest is that Michal looked at David with contempt because she had been treated with contempt for much of her life. Contempt breeds contempt. Michal had been dehumanized, treated as a bargaining chip, her feelings and needs thrown to the side in order for her father to accomplish what he set out to do. J. Cheryl Exum puts it this way in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia

“Saul gives Michal to another man (1 Sam 25:44) in an apparent move to block David from claiming the kingship through her. After Saul’s death, when it is politically expedient, David demands the return of his wife in his negotiations over the kingship (1 Samuel 3). Michal’s husband Paltiel is grief-stricken, but of Michal’s feelings we hear nothing until 2 Samuel 6, where she watches David dancing before the ark and ‘despise[s] him in her heart.’”

And after all of this, when Michal looks at David with contempt in our Scripture passage for this morning, she is continually passed over in favor of new wives for David. Can we blame her for feeling bitterness and hatred in her heart? Verse 23 tells us that Michal went on to have no children before her death. What a tragic story all the way around.

This summer as we read through the Bible like we are on a road trip with God, we have encountered a roundabout on our journey. You know roundabouts? I’ve been told that roundabouts are the answer to many traffic problems and would clear up many intersections. The problem is? People who are unfamiliar with them don’t know how to use them. Roundabouts are easy to get into, but people can run into trouble when they try to get out of them. Kinda like in the movie National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Clark Griswold drives smoothly into the roundabout, and his wife reminds him to take the second left. The problem? He can’t seem to get out of the innermost lane so that he can turn left. They drive round and round the circle as Clark says, “Look, kids! It’s Big Ben and the Parliament!” each time they pass it. He repeats this until nightfall and everyone else is in his car fast asleep. 

I, too, have tried to figure out roundabouts, but everytime I do, it feels like I’m going in circles…

OK, sorry…one more Why did they dedicate a roundabout to Matthew McConaughey?

Because it was all right, all right, all right. I’m sorry. That’s the last one, I promise.

Contempt – looking at other people as though they are lesser than ourselves, or despising someone’s very humanity – is like a roundabout that we can get into and then struggle to get out of. And when we hurt others by dehumanizing them, the people we hurt may go out and do likewise to others. You may have heard it said this way: “Hurt people hurt people,” and it’s true. After learning about all that Michal had been through, can we blame her for reacting the way she did? She had been passed around for show. Given to others when it suited everyone’s purposes. And here, there was another spectacle – David dancing in a way that may have made her feel embarrassed or the object of other people’s judgment. Was it right for her to look at him and despise him? No. But, perhaps we can all understand where she was coming from.

We find a similar story in the Gospel of Mark. Herod has John the Baptist killed in order to save face with the crowd. It wasn’t as much about keeping his word as it was about doing what he thought he needed to do to look good in the eyes of others. He did this at the expense of John the Baptist’s life, and the story we heard from Mark is told almost like a memory as Herod remembers what he did and why he had done it. John the Baptist was dehumanized. He was a bargaining chip in Herod’s cruel game of promises and face-saving. And John’s death wounded John’s disciples, and we see Herod’s guilt replay in Herod’s mind.

The trouble is, contempt is almost like second nature to us when we are concerned about ourselves and how we appear in this world. When our sole focus is on ourselves, we may lose sight of how our actions impact others. We – often unintentionally – dehumanize and despise our neighbors. We wound them, and they go out and wound others. And this cycle of dehumanization and pain becomes a vicious cycle, a never-ending roundabout that no one can seem to get out of. 

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s work Tale of Melibee he wrote this phrase that has been oft-quoted ever since: “familiarity breeds contempt.” Basically, the more you know someone or something, the more likely you are to feel contempt or disdain for that person or thing. Sometimes this can be true. Something that we once found endearing becomes aggravating over time. 

But, I’m not sure familiarity is the problem. I like the way an article from Psychology Today put it. It says, “In relationships, the problem is not with familiarity, but more about that to which we’re acclimating. For example, disrespectful, dishonoring, and negative energy all too often becomes familiar territory in relationships. These are the elements that cause contempt.” It’s not knowing each other better that causes contempt to grow and thrive; it is the creation of a climate of disrespect and dishonoring that creates a cycle that is difficult to break.

Jesus called us to get out of the roundabout, and he told us which exit to take. When Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples he said this, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). This is the way out of the contempt roundabout – this is the way the world will know that we follow Jesus – when we live our lives with love for one another. 

My heart breaks for Michal – a woman who loved, but who experienced no love in return. This world is filled with people who’ve experienced the pain she has experienced. Perhaps you’ve even experienced it yourself. I think we all have – at least on some level. But, there is a way out. There’s an exit we can take. There’s a way to get out of that never-ending roundabout of contempt and pain. And that way is love.

If you are carrying pain in your heart today, I hope you are able to receive the love of God that can heal and restore. God loves you perfectly, with an everlasting and unending love. God’s love isn’t dependent upon you earning it or your perfection. God’s love is offered to you right now in this moment. For every time the world offers us pain and heartbreak and contempt, let’s give love in return. Even if we can’t muster up our own love to give, God’s love abounds and is enough. 

Indeed, they will know we are Christians by our love. May we go forth in love and ask God to help us along the way.