Harrowing Of Hell
August 9, 2015

Joab the Truth-Teller

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I am glad to be back. I missed you all. I missed this church. I prayed for you every day. And I feel rejuvenated.

I have a lot to tell you about my Sabbatical, too much in fact to cram into a sermon. But it is enough to say, that I experienced along the way God’s overarching agenda for my Sabbatical. And two things became perfectly clear:

  1. I want to double-down on my life here in this city, at this church, with all of you.
  2. (This may be self-evident) The agenda belongs to God, and the joy is seeking it and following it together.

In my sermon today I want to introduce you to Joab. He is King David’s nephew, the son of David’s sister. Joab comes to mind because of the provocative words we hear at the beginning of the Ephesians reading today; where Paul writes: “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” To my mind, Joab is a truth-teller, particularly to King David, and as such we can probably learn something from him.

The idea of “speaking the truth to our neighbors” however makes me pause. We all know people who consider themselves “truth-tellers.” People who “give it to you straight,” who “aren’t afraid to tell it like it is,” who “never beat around the bush.” And when I hear people describe themselves like this, I think, “uh oh, here comes a self-centered, idiosyncratic, probably dogmatic, comment that is deeply seeded in this person’s own point of view.” Maybe you know what I mean.

So the impulse is to go the other way and not say anything even if the truth is self evident and could be helpful. We think, “It’s not my business.” “They will figure it out eventually.” “Maybe I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing.”

Neither one is any good. Not speaking the truth will set us outside the kingdom of God just as fast as misstating the truth will set us outside the kingdom of God, which is why Paul implores us, “to speak the truth to our neighbors.”

There are four characteristics of a truth-teller that Joab exemplifies:

  1. Understanding the equality of humanity.
  2. Authenticity: what you see is what you get
  3. Empathy: seeing the world from another person’s point of view
  4. Honesty: even at the risk of personal disadvantage

These are characteristics of Joab. Let’s take a look to see how they play out in his life. We’ll start with his name, Joab. It means: “God is the Father,” which is interesting. Joab is introduced to us as the son of Zeruiah, which sounds pretty Bible normal, until you realize that Zeruiah is the sister of King David. God is the Father, Zeruiah is the mother, and so if Joab identifies God as the Father, logic might lead us to conclude that he identifies everyone else as brothers and sisters, which is an important characteristic of the truth-teller: they understand the equally of all humanity. That the lowest can speak truth to the most powerful; that men and women can speak truth to one another; that hierarchy and power differentiation based on class, race, of sex do not inhibit the truth-teller. Paul says it this way: “We all belong to one another.”

Another characteristic of the truth-teller is authenticity. What you see is what you get. This doesn’t make a person perfect, it just makes them predictable, and Joab was predictable. He knew who he was, and he knew his place in the world. On one occasion David forgot this about Joab; that Joab was a warrior who prided himself not only on serving the king, but insuring that everyone else served the king as well. He was David’s top general, except for that one time when David replaced him with Asama (2 Sam 20:10). Joab was uncomfortable with this change. He sought out Asama and grabbed him by the beard, kissed him on the cheek, and stuck a sword in his stomach. Then he shouted: “Whoever favors David, will follow Joab.”

So Joab wasn’t perfect, but he was consistent, predictable, authentic. What you saw is what you got. So we have authenticity and knowing the equality of humanity as characteristics of the truth-teller.

A third characteristic we find in Joab is empathy. A truth-teller must be able to stand in the other person’s shoes. To see the world through the eyes of the other person, is necessary if we are to help them perceive a truth in their life.

Here is an example from an earlier part of the Absalom David story. Absalom has killed his older brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar. He flees to Gershur. David lets Absalom’s departure be a self-imposed exile, and for three years, David refuses to acknowledge Absalom. Absalom reaches out to Joab for help, and Joab agrees to try to change David’s mind, and lift the exile that Absalom lives under.

Joab knows David. He knows David always favors the underdog. He witnessed how the prophet Nathan created a drama to change David’s mind, and so he decided to do the same thing on behalf of Absalom. Joab recruits a woman, and sends her before David with his words in her mouth. She dresses as if she is in mourning and goes before the king. “I am a widow. I have two sons. One day in field they fought and one killed the other. Now a relative of mine is demanding that I turn over my remaining son, so he can take his life in exchange for the life of my now deceased son.” She goes on to say, that if this happens, not only will she have lost both sons but her husband’s name will be lost from the earth.

David, sees this woman as the underdog, and he tells her that if the man comes to her again seeking her sons life send that man to him and he will deal with it. “Not a hair on your sons head will fall to the ground.” This is the response Joab had predicted. So then the woman continues, “King can I say something else?” David replies, “yes.” She says, “Your answer to me convicts you. For you have kept your son in exile as if he were dead.” David hears the truth, and asks, “did Joab put you up to this?” and she reply’s “Yes.” Then he asked Joab if he did, and Joab replies “yes.” And David’s response is to hear the truth and lift the exile of Absalom.

Finally, a truth-teller is honest, even in the face of negative consequences. We draw this last lesson of Joab from today’s reading from 2 Samuel. Here is the story: Absalom has rebelled against his father, David. He had declared himself king at Hebron, and marched back to Jerusalem where he occupied the city after David has fled. There Absalom slept with all of David’s concubines, and lives in David’s house. David heard about all of this, and yet he instructs Joab, and his other mighty men, to deal “gently with Absalom.”

David and Absalom go to war. Absalom is routed and while he flees his hair gets caught in a tree. Joab and his ten bodyguards come across Absalom hanging there, and kill him against David’s orders. David, hears of the death and is broken hearted: “Absalom, my son, Absalom, if I could I’d change places with you.” And yet, even in the face of the king’s wrath, Joab owns his actions. He doesn’t deny them or hide them.

This is a characteristic of a truth-teller. Equality, authenticity, empathy, and honesty are the characteristics of the truth-teller, and they are characteristics of Joab. When these characteristics become the core of a person, the by-product is a person who is a truth-teller. And these truth-tellers, despite themselves, service the common good, and that is good for everybody.

Let me conclude with one final Joab story that makes this point. When Absalom was defeated and then killed, David cried and mourned and made a big public fuss. And so his soldier, the ones who fought to save his life, snuck back home as if they were deserters from the army. And Joab pulled David aside and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of your men, the men who have saved your life. You have made it clear to them that they are nothing to you, saying, in a sense, you would be happier if Absalom were alive and they were dead. Stop it. That isn’t good for you, and that isn’t good for them, and that is the truth. Go out there and tell them you are proud of them. Go out there and thank them. That might not feel good but it will be good for everybody.” The truth is always good for everybody… it might not feel good to everybody, but it is good for everybody, practically, in the moment, in a way that is relational. Real truth binds relationships and makes them stronger.

Paul knows this which is why he writes: “Let us speak truth to our neighbors.” That is what we try to do here at Epiphany. This is where we practice being truth-tellers. I’d encourage you to go up to someone and say, “I want to try out some truth-telling with you.” And when you do know you are entering into collaboration with someone who in turn will help you assess your authenticity and empathy and honesty and maybe even your capacity to see the equality of humanity. And as this happens, we are formed and reformed and made into the kind of people who consistently and habitually act as truth-tellers for the common good.