- First Reading 1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15) 16-20 (11:14-15)
- Psalm 138:1-8
- Second Reading 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
- Gospel Mark 3:20-35
Have you ever seen someone doing something stupid and then instantly pay the price?
Perhaps you were driving and someone recklessly passed you, maybe even honking or shouting as they went by only for you to pass them a few minutes later, after they have been pulled over?
It feels good, doesn’t it. We love seeing that instant justice. We love that feeling when our sense of right and wrong is validated.
At least, sometimes we love it. What if, instead of the aggressive driver being pulled over, they drove into a ditch? Or a wall? Or another car?
I recently saw a video featuring two boats on a lake. The person recording was on the first boat, and a second boat was harassing them, shouting at them and circling them, seemingly as fast as that boat could go…driving the boat so fast that, before too long, first the engine and then the rest of the boat caught fire, forcing the harassing boaters into the water as their boat slowly burned.
I have to admit, watching those people jump into the water as their boat burned felt good. It felt like justice. I wanted the people in the other boat, the ones who were being harassed, to just sail away, leave the jerks behind. Fortunately for all involved, they were better than that, and they pulled everyone out of the water and took them back to shore.
Sometimes, this happens with our friends and loved ones. Parents, I know you have felt this from time to time. I know you have seen your children on the cusp of making a mistake, of doing something stupid, of getting themselves in trouble. Maybe you warned them, maybe you knew they wouldn’t listen and said nothing, but you saw what was coming.
Not everyone here is a parent, but everyone here was once a child. Every one of us can also remember being on the other side, can remember when we did something stupid despite all the warnings our parents, friends, maybe even strangers on the street tried to give us, but often, there is no teacher better than experience.
So it is, it seems with all levels of human organization, from the individual up to the nation. We often like to think of sin as an individual matter, as a corruption of the relationship between ourself and God, as the result of an individual’s decisions for or against God. We hear others, hopefully not Presbyterians, but probably at least some, speaking of Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior,” as if Christ did not live, teach, die, and rise again for all.
It may then come as a surprise when we realize that scripture is rarely concerned with individual sin. Scripture filled with collective judgements for collective sins, consistently showing more care for unjust systems than individual mistakes. The prophets rarely complain about choices made by individuals, but keep their focus on the structural forces employed by the society that create and validate those individual choices, and when divine judgement does come, rarely does it fall solely on the king, or the priests, or the leaders, but falls on all.
This is what we see in our text from Samuel. Samuel is warning the people of what will come when they choose to reject God’s guidance and choose a king, when they reject divine protection and choose an army, when they reject satisfaction with the promised land that God has given them and seek conquest.
Samuel warns the people of the consequences of their choice:
“‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’”
We do not choose these things alone, but always as a body, and it is this knowledge that creates Samuel’s greatest dilemma. Samuel knows what will come from a king. Samuel knows that this is not about a “good king” or a “bad king,” though some are worse than others, but merely a statement about the nature of kings, because our judgement of whether a king is good or bad depends less on what the king does and more on which side of the king we happen to fall on.
Samuel does not promise punishment for the king. Samuel does not promise punishment for anyone. Samuel merely states the truth: when we choose human politics over divine service, we will all face the consequences. Kings create hierarchies. Armies create enemies. When we choose human power, we are always choosing destruction.
I would not blame Samuel if, after the people affirm again their choice to reject God, their desire that they should be led by a human and fight their own battles, he decided to retreat, to wash his hands of them. To go sit on a hilltop to watch and wait for the people to get the comeuppance he knows is coming, to watch and wait for the cop to pull over the reckless driver, to drive his boat away from the people treading water as their boat burns.
Samuel though, Samuel knows the truth. God does not give up on us. God does not walk away. We may demand to be taught by experience, and so instead of walking away and waiting for the inevitable to come to pass, he leads the people in selecting their kings and he works for the king’s success, because ultimately, Samuel knows this: we succeed and fail together. We are not just a collection of individuals, responsible only for our own choices, but we each, individually and collectively, create the conditions for others’ choices, and so Samuel chooses to stay engaged because Samuel knows that God too, stays engaged and so even as we choose to reject or ignore God’s help, God keeps working around us.