We are given a poignant insight into the heart of God in a narrative from 1 Samuel 8: 4-20. I feel sorry for both Samuel and God in this story. The Israelites see their power structure crumbling. Samuel is their connection to God. A prophet, he serves as God’s mouthpiece. But he’s getting old and his two sons are up to no good. The rule of succession dictates that the father elevate the sons to his prophetic position in his state of decline. The Hebrew people know they are doomed. So they cry out to Samuel, asking him to appoint a King for them. Living by an alternative system of government to the surrounding tribes has been taxing. They want to conform: “Give us a king so that we can be like the other nations.” They want to fit in. Some things never change from generation to generation.
Samuel feels like a failure with this request. God’s governance over the chosen people was to guide them directly through prophets, not to shape royalty out of regular folks. Samuel doesn’t want a monarchy to be established on his watch. But God assures the weary prophet that the people are not rejecting him. The Israelites are rejecting God. God gave them freedom to choose their way of life. So God invites Samuel to give them what they want. Samuel feels guilt. God is resigned. It’s a tough moment in the history of the Jews.
We hit up against an unlikely paradox in this story. God is omnipotent yet humanity is free. This is a remarkable model for power that few leaders choose. Parents understand it however. When our grown children insist on charting a path of destruction in spite of our best guidance, we shake our heads but stand close by. We brace ourselves for the consequences we believe will inevitably come their way. With every choice, they receive their just deserts. In other words, they get exactly what they deserve. Sometimes the path of rebellion has minimal repercussions. Other times, the carnage is painful to witness. As parents, it grieves us to know that our grown children must have the freedom to make their own mistakes.
In this snapshot into the impatient, insecure Israelites, we notice that God meets us where we are at. Our choices may have long-term consequences but God never abandons us. To this generation of adults crying out for a human ruler, God responds, “I’ll still be with you if you choose a king but here’s what the king may do to you…” God strings together a litany of policies that monarchs use to control their people. Taxes, conscripted military service, greed, forced servanthood will be their just deserts if they replace God with a King. Even the best leaders govern their people through these tactics. In contrast to those policies, God liberates, defends, protects and loves. The two models of governance could not be in greater opposition.
The issue at stake in this passage is how will God’s people choose to be governed? What is the foundational protocol for empowering leaders? Is it bribes? Birthright? Is it a popularity contest or, like Samuel tried, succession? Is it a voting process that become hotly contested for its efficacy? Will we raise up leaders who close their eyes to the injustices surrounding them in order to protect the status quo? Is maintaining the power structure more important than shaping a national ethic of compassion?
On June 1 Pope Francis issued an extensive revision to the laws that guide the Roman Catholic Church. After decades of scandal surrounding abusive priests who were reassigned from one parish to another, even as rumors or accusations of sexual misdoing surfaced, the Pope clarified the fitting and harsh response of ecclesial leaders to these transgressions. This revision will not undo the damage that has driven countless believers away from the church. But it may restore some confidence in an institution that, at times, seemed to protect the hierarchy rather than act justly. When politics and faith collide, can there be authenticity or do we expect leaders to protect other leaders? This story perhaps raises more questions than it answers!
Samuel’s allegiance to God stands in stark contrast to the willingness of the Hebrew people to dethrone God. Samuel comes to God’s defense but his sermon falls on deaf ears. I’ve often felt like I was the defender of God! It’s amazing to me how often folks blame God for their mishaps but never thank God for the many gifts in their lives. Quite often the struggles are born out of human sin. Yet God is blamed. What if we did that with a human relationship? Every time something goes awry, we blame the same person. But we never invest in a loving relationship with them that affirms their gifts to us. How long would that relationship endure? We live in a society that readily abandons faith—and Church—for perceived insults. Yet the Offended haven’t had a conversation with their Maker in years! Often the underlying problem to our social issues is spiritual in nature but we hang it on our favorite scapegoats. As long as we blame our problems on others, especially an amorphous deity, we fail to make peace with the inevitable challenges we face. Sadly, embitterment toward God is rampant in our nation today. We are an increasingly secular country where God doesn’t factor into our daily decision-making. But that doesn’t stop us, avowed atheists included, from pointing the finger at God for the slightest discomfort!
In the New Interpreter’s Bible one commentator offers good insights into this passage from 1 Samuel. He writes, “In this story, the elders and Samuel both suggest dangers that still face us in the modern church. The elders have a legitimate concern for justice, but are willing to erode the authority of God for the sake of stronger centers of human power. Samuel is protective of the integrity of God, but represents a vested interest in the way things have always been done. Chapter 8 offers no simple right-and-wrong way to adjudicate the claims of citizenship and faith. It merely demands an awareness of the interrelated character of these claims.”
I was hoping for a simple explanation!
I wonder when your faith has led you to establish firm, counter-cultural boundaries? When has your stance gotten you in trouble or made things awkward for you? How does your understanding of citizenship and discipleship interact? When you pull up alongside a disheveled person who is holding a sign inviting donations, do you roll down your window and hand out a couple bills? Or do you write a check to a charitable organization that addresses the root causes of poverty in our city? Or do you hope the light changes soon so you don’t have to avoid making eye contact with a pitiful figure who looms outside your car window? As our reasoning capacities mature over the course of our years, we discover that there are seldom easy answers to our faith crises. Job’s wife offered a solution that still is popular today for those facing hardship: Just curse God and die.
But martyrs have died for the Christian faith over the ages! Why would they do that? What belief system is worth dying for? If you want a good but startling answer, read some of the letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. He was a German pastor who worked to bring Hitler’s reign of terror to an end. When this was discovered, he was sent to an internment camp. His letters reflect a beautiful faith that recognizes that he is at the mercy of evil leadership. But God kept company with Bonhoeffer in that death camp. He was killed by firing squad just days before the war ended. When does our faith lead us to say “no” to prevailing attitudes even when it’s costly to us? Political power is usually maintained by force and threat of physical harm. Jesus leads by love. Jesus preaches that we have a choice about how we live each day but reminds us that we can’t serve two masters. Jesus takes on Himself the guilt of others, hoping that the least likable person will encounter God through His willing sacrifice. Do we follow Christ’s example? Or do we keep at a safe distance from our cultural clashes?
Father Richard Rohr writes about the first spiritual experience he had when he was just five. Alone by the Christmas tree he was overwhelmed with a sense that the world was good, that he was good and that he was part of the good world. He realized that his family didn’t know what he was experiencing and it felt like a good secret to keep. He experienced in that holy encounter that he was chosen and loved and he wanted to keep that to himself. He writes, “…see how my ego was already getting involved? Like the Apostle Paul, I now believe that chosenness is for the sake of letting everybody else know they are chosen, too… Our job is to be who we say we are and who God says we are—carriers of the divine image…I can only imagine how differently our lives, families, and nations would look if we trusted the foundational promise of Christian incarnation. When you can see Christ in all things (including yourself!), you will see and live differently.” (Post from April, 2021 on the Center for Action and Contemplation daily reflection)
While the Israelites cry out for a king who will go to battle for them and make a great name for their nation, Rohr suggests that we are to choose a life of “simplicity, service, generosity, and even powerlessness…” Powerlessness? That doesn’t sell! Can you imagine a candidate running a campaign that boasts those attributes? This seems the very opposite of everything that we would describe as “kingliness.” But it also paints a clear picture of the One we claim to follow. Jesus’ ministry, more than one thousand years after poor Samuel took a stand for God, models the necessity of reaching for God during trials rather than relying on false security. When our community cries out for justice, we often grab onto the nearest promise of safety that has flesh and voice. What we receive for our short-sighted security grab is our just deserts.
Jesus calls out to us, wherever we find ourselves marooned, reminding us that we are not alone. His sovereignty goes against the sort of power most rulers flash in order to impress. But He introduces us to a God who liberates, defends, protects and loves.
Do you want a king to be like the other nations? Or will you spend your life in the shelter of this loving God? The choice is yours.