This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 Samuel 8:1-22
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘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; 12and 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. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.’
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’
There are at least two competing theologies in the biblical history of Israel: one sees the whole story of the monarchy as a terrible mistake, holding out the image of true Israel as a loose confederation of tribes whose king is God; and the other is the messianic view that although King David’s successors departed from his faith and justice, God will one day send a “son of David” who will re-establish the people. This competition is continued today by those who believe the apparatus of the state can be adapted to deliver justice, and on the other hand, those who believe that justice requires the dismantling of the apparatus.
Scholars have some doubts about the historicity of the biblical picture of early Israel as a tribal confederation under God, but it certainly fuels Samuel’s prophetic critique of royal power:
- A king will prioritise military expenditure
- A king will prioritise expenditure on his court and his immediate supporters.
- To finance these he will tax his people
Readers with anarchist tendencies will nod approvingly at this critique and add that you can easily substitute “government” for “king.” Perhaps we have become so used to government and its provisions that we can’t envision life without them. Even in a democratic state we should be aware of the huge power we give to our governments and how this is routinely misused, for example, in decisions to wage wars, as in Afghanistan and Libya. The advocates of “small government” may have something to teach us, although the suspicion remains that many of them simply want to ditch all provisions for the poor while keeping the rest.
A devout meditation on the problems of collecting and recycling of household rubbish in an anarchist society may lead us to prefer Samuel’s “king” with all his faults. The real question raised by today’s passage is: how can we envisage the “rule of God” in our societies? Samuel would tell us that dismissing this question as out-of-date is to surrender to idolatry.
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
28 ‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Sometimes the Lectionary takes my breath away by the mutual appositeness of its readings from the Old and New Testaments. Here Jesus addresses the issue of power. In his household, he says, greatness is shown by vulnerability and power by service. In other societies, greatness means the power to impose and impress. This must never happen amongst his disciples. He describes himself as a slave. Those who have stood with him in his struggles will enjoy the hospitality of his house and guide his people. In the first instance, God’s rule is exercised by those who sustain his household by vulnerable service. The community of Jesus’ disciples is to be a model for the larger communities in the world. His community will represent God’s rule a) by the justice of its own shared life and b) by its compassion for and critique of the societies in which it exists.
Some will think that this doesn’t sound much like the church they know, or its leaders. Is the glittering doll in the Vatican among us as one who serves? More pertinently I have to ask whether I as a minister of the church have always acted as a servant. Whose is that voice I hear in my ears insisting on getting its own way, or seeking its own prestige in the church community? Yes, it’s mine, mine.