On Saints and Sinners

The events of 2 Samuel 11-12 depicting the encounter between David and Bathsheba and its fallout mark “the great turning point of the whole David story.” 1  According to its traditional superscription, Psalm 51 was composed by David following his dramatic confrontation with the prophet Nathan.  This great penitential psalm has rightly occupied a cherished place in the life of worship and prayer of the Christian church through the ages.  In many traditions, it is corporately read or sung on Ash Wednesday.  Reflecting upon the psalm leads Robert Barron to observe the somewhat counter-intuitive connection between saint and sinner in the Christian faith:

“Though the king desperately tried to conceal his malfeasance, the offense clawed at his conscience:  ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me’ (Ps. 51:3).  This in itself is a good thing, for it proves that the transgressor is in the presence of God.  G.K. Chesterton remarks, ‘There are saints indeed in my religion:  but a saint only means a man who knows he is a sinner.’  The saint orders his life toward the light of God, and this orientation brings the imperfections of the soul more readily to view.  This helps to explain why the greatest saints are more, rather than less, aware of their sin, convinced even that they are the worst of sinners.  Not a false modesty, this attitude reveals that the saint is in the light.  On the other hand, those who blithely report that all is well with themselves are, almost perforce, looking away from God.”  2

  1. Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 249, quoted in Robert Baron, 2 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 95.
  2. Barron, 111. The internal quotation is from G.K. Chesterton, “The High Plains,” in Alarms and Discussions (London: Methuen, 1924), 142.

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