Like Other Nations...
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

June 7, 2015

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Mark 3:20-35

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

The rumor mill is running full tilt around Jesus. People are gathering around him and everyone is trying to understand who he is and what he is up to. And some are saying, “Well, he has powers over demons because he works for them.”

And Jesus responds, “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand; a house divided against itself will fall. And if Satan is fighting against Satan then he is going to lose, which means God will win.”

And in a strange turn of phrase, Jesus says

But no one can enter a strong man’s house
and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man;
then indeed the house can be plundered.

Like his parables about the kingdom of God being like leaven or a mustard seed or some other surprising image, here the image is that the agents of the Kingdom of God are like a thief trying to rob the house of the ruler of this world (Caesar, Satan, take your pick). The image Jesus is offering is that what he is doing, casting out all of these demons and unclean spirits, is stealing people back from this world and bringing them into the kingdom of God.

And if we pause in our Gospel reading here for a moment, and go all the way back to First Samuel, we get a sense of what Jesus is talking about. And this morning’s reading from First Samuel is one of those strange passages where our progressives and our libertarians might both like the same verses.

Samuel, the prophet and judge, is old. And while he himself has a direct line to God, his sons are not the prophet and judge that he is. They take bribes. They rule on things for their own gain.

And so the elders, in this crisis of leadership, come to Samuel and say

You are old and your sons
do not follow in your ways;
appoint for us, then, a king to govern us,
like other nations.

And Samuel is distraught. Israel has been different from the other nations precisely in that it does not have a king, but God is its king. And the prophets and judges has settled disputes, and the people have lived in covenant with one another without a military-industrial complex, to quote President Eisenhower.

But the sons of Samuel are failing, and the people are panicking, and they want a king, and this is the part that needs to be in bold print, underlined, “like the other nations.” Other nations means those not of the covenant of God.

Samuel represents the old way of doing things, and the people, even the elders, want something new. So Samuel goes to the Lord, and he prays. And God’s answer is remarkable. God does not command a king, nor does he smite those who ask for one. God speaks with the sadness of a parent whose child does not listen, a voice Samuel could easily recognize:

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.
Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought
them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me
and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.

And then he lays out a warning that Samuel is to give, as if to say, “Give them what they want and leave them to the consequences of their choices.”

The warning is that the king will take. Six times Samuel says that the king will take:

  1. Your sons to be his soldiers
  2. Your daughters to serve the needs of the court
  3. Your best lands to give out to his allies and supporters
  4. One tenth of your harvests to pay for his armies and his opulent court
  5. Your male and female slaves and best work animals for his own gain
  6. One tenth of your flocks

And the result of all of this taking is that the kings will be like Pharaoh of Egypt and the people will be slaves. And the old system of the people crying out to God in their hardship and God hearing them and answering will soon become the people crying out in their despair because of the very king that they asked for, and this is the heartbreaking part, because they have chosen the king over God, God will not answer.

But the elders persist. Give us a king like the other nations. And it is little wonder that under David and Solomon, Jerusalem begins to look like a little Egypt, with the king and temple at the top and the people crying out to God.

This story is not simply a cautionary tale for Israel and all nations, it expresses the difficulty of being the church. How often do we chase the glory of the megachurch? How often do we treat the church like a service industry for our own purposes? How quickly does the Gospel become “how to be a nice person and get a better job,” rather than training people in the binding of the strong man and the plundering of his house?

How many of us practice Pie Theology? This is the belief that there is only so much pie to go around, and so we take as much as we can, and we guard it from everyone else, because after all there is only so much to go around.

Pie theology was popular in Samuel’s day. It was alive and well in Jesus’ day. And it is prevalent today.

But whenever Jesus saw someone hungry, he fed them. When they were thirsty, he showed them water that never ran dry. And those who give up on pie theology and turn to their neighbor and share, whose who give rather than take, are these not Jesus’ brothers and sisters?

Thanks be to God.