The Second Tithe

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I’ll never forget when two members of my congregation at Cockrell Hill UMC (two members of what I affectionately call my “Blue-haired Biddy Brigade”) came up to me after worship one Sunday and told me that they didn’t like the Old Testament reading for that morning, and that they just couldn’t believe that such a horrible story could be found in the Holy Bible. If you’ve never read the story of the “Rape of Tamar” from 2 Samuel 13:1-22, take a moment to read it before gong on.

This is, indeed, a horrible story! But it is in the Bible, along with a lot of other difficult to read and accept stories. I must admit that I, too, was troubled by what I read the first time I read it. A brother raping his sister is simply not something you like to think or read about while worshiping God on a beautiful Sunday morning! But, if nothing else it will probably spark some interesting thoughts and reflections in us on the nature of sin and guilt. I know it did for me when I first read it.

Firstly, I was angry. When we hear of an injustice, or read of a horrible violation of human rights — as rape — we should get angry, we should get incensed. We feel as if we, too, were violated. We, with Absalom, cannot help but feel hatred for Amnon because of what he did to our sister, Tamar.

Secondly, we should work hard to establish justice for those who have been so horrifically violated. And, at the same time, we should commit ourselves to creating a society in which similar injustices will never be tolerated in the future.

Thirdly, I was struck by the never-ending, never-changing nature of sin. For some reason, we modern folk seem to think that the sins that people commit in our present day and age are far worse than the sins of previous eras. And, while there does appear to be more of it around today, the nature of sin really has not changed. Sin is still sin, be it committed in the 1900s BC, or in the 1900s AD. We can read about it on the front pages of the morning paper, or in the pages of the Bible. Sin is everywhere. And, it always will be.

And, finally, I was struck by my own reactions, my own thoughts and feelings. After all, one of the reasons for reading more than one scripture lesson during Sunday morning worship is so that we might be more attentive to the voice of God, speaking to us in many different ways. What could we possibly hear from God in such a horrible account of sin? Why would it have even been included in the Bible? Were there political motivations for its inclusion? If so, what might they have been?

All of these reflections, and more, have gone banging around my brain several times in the past while reading such passages. In this instance, however, perhaps we should first ask a more fundamental question: why did Amnon hate Tamar after he had raped her? Why did he throw her out of his house? Why did he treat her so horribly, even after he had his way with her? One possible answer is that he felt guilty. He hated her not because of anything she had done, but because of what he had done to her. Her presence reminded him of his sin. By throwing her out, and hating her, he was trying to distract his attention away from his evil deed, and ignore the guilt of his sin. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

We often find ways of ignoring our own guilt when we have sinned against God, or against others. We get angry at them. We hate the people we have sinned against. We avoid them for fear of being reminded of what we have done to them. We are masters at finding ways to distract ourselves away from our sins. We are virtuosos at convincing ourselves that our sins really aren’t sins, as I’m sure Amnon managed to do during the two years that he lived after the rape. The message is clear: we, like Amnon, are sinners--and we don’t like being reminded of it.

What else might God have been saying to us through this story? Perhaps what we most needed to hear — and certainly what I needed to hear — was that the sin of one person can have far-reaching repercussions. That’s one of the things that makes sin so horrible: it is an affront to God because we are not just failing God and God's trust, we are also harming uncounted others. I’m sure that Amnon had no idea that, nearly 3000 years after the fact, we would be reading in a worship service an account of how he raped his sister. His sin harmed her, her family, her father, and God. It also harmed us while, at the same time, it reminded us that we are, indeed, sinners, and as much in need of God’s grace as was Amnon.

© 1993, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.