Lessons (Track One)
Centuries before the meeting described in our first reading at one of our world’s key turning points:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
The Lord’s task from then on—very much including our present—is making that happen. The patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the Law received at Sinai, the occupation of the land, the long period of the judges: all that’s in the rear-view mirror. Samuel is the last of the judges—and the people want a king.
Samuel’s displeasure is hardly surprising; what is surprising is the Lord’s response: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” “Appoint for us…a king” could have been a deal-breaker, a rejection of the Lord, and, given the typical conduct of earthly kings, it was certainly a remarkably bad idea. But the Lord treats it as negotiable, looking to see—as we’ll see in coming weeks—what good can be brought out of the situation.
At the Lord’s command Samuel lays out why human kingship is a bad idea. He offers a pretty good description of the conduct of the kings in the countries surrounding Israel. It turns out to be a pretty good description of the future kings of Israel. The more things change…
In very broad brushstrokes, here’s how kingship plays out:
- Even the best of Israel’s kings doesn’t disprove Samuel’s words; most don’t even try.
- Deuteronomy makes a valiant attempt to redefine kingship, including “And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself” (17:17). From Solomon on that’s a non-starter.
- There is enough remembered good in David that a son of David or anointed one (Hebrew ‘Messiah’ Greek ‘Christ’) is part of many of the prophets’ hopes for Israel’s future.
- Given the greed, lawlessness, and violence typically associated with kingship, Jesus keeps the title ‘Messiah’ at arm’s length, even while privately accepting it among the apostles and working hard to rescue it: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).
But back to Samuel. It turns out that in the quest to realize the vision in Abram’s call (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”) the form of government is negotiable. Are there political questions that aren’t negotiable? This morning’s psalm reminds us of one. Consider vv.5-7:
All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord,
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
They will sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.
Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;
he perceives the haughty from afar.
Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” It’s easy to forget how counter-intuitive this is. The default is to assume that those who are high care only about their peers—anything less would be beneath them. In pre-Christian Greco-Roman literature, if the lowly appeared on stage or in literature, it was only for comic relief. The Gospel narratives are extraordinary also in this respect, filed with “ordinary” people whose decisions and lives mattered. And there are plenty of voices today encouraging us to think that if someone is lowly, it’s their own fault and certainly not our problem.
No. “Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” That is the glory of the Lord; this is the way of the Lord. That is where Jesus gets what we just heard: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s Jesus’ God. Recall God speaking through Isaiah:
3 Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
4 even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (46:3-4)
We no longer live in a monarchy. But we have plenty of words assigning power and authority: Boss, CEO, President, Supervisor. I don’t know that God cares particularly which set of words we use; that seems to be negotiable. God does care how we use the power and authority—and all of us in our different spheres have some measure of power and authority. “Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” That’s our God; that’s therefore our mandate for our use of power and authority.
For David, Solomon, etc. the challenge is the tension between God’s character and kingship-as-usual. For us it’s the tension between God’s character and politics-as-usual. So we read their stories also as a sort of mirror and a source of hope. God did not easily give up with them…
Now—one final point before I wrap up—who are “the lowly”? Our political parties like to pick and choose, and often encourage distrust and fear between different groups. If we confess Jesus’ God that’s not an option. “The lowly”: those on the receiving end of systemic racism, certainly. Dwellers in our many small towns decimated by market forces, certainly. Family farms that are closing at alarming rates, certainly. With the psalmist we cry out
O Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.
There are so many lowly, so many different ways people are vulnerable to lowliness.
“Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” The good news is that the Lord does lordship in ways that regularly undercut our expectations. The good news is that even when we choose badly (“Appoint for us…a king”) God does not abandon us, but continues to incite us to let God’s character muddle our politics, causing “good trouble,” so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”