Choosing a King or Community. Shared word for Community of St. Martin by Steve Clemens. June 10, 2012
The two readings from the lectionary for today:
1 Samuel 8:4-20 New International Version (NIV)
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.
12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. ”
Mark 3:20-35 (NIV)
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Schanan shared with us last week about this second passage, focusing primarily on the response of Jesus’ family members. I want to continue my reflection on this passage by linking it with the Hebrew Bible lesson in today’s lectionary from I Samuel about the desire to have a king.
Since all this summer and fall we will be inundated (and nauseated) by millions of dollars worth of political ads – not to mention the paid bloviators of the political pundocracy, all focused on the horserace for the crowning of our own emperor, king, or “President”, we might want to re-assess that fateful decision the Children of Israel made in going the way of all the other nations.
It is just one more step from “give us a King!” to 8 centuries later hearing the cry from the people to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar”. It is easy for us today to look back over the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible about how that all worked out. The official texts included now in the stories of the Tribes of Israel often try to whitewash or minimize the greed and folly of many of the Kings; we’ve been Sunday-schooled to admire King Solomon’s request for wisdom and gaze with wonder at the lavish Temple he constructed.
But, as Wes Howard-Brook so eloquently exposes in his book, Come Out, My People, the Bible carries another critique less flattering of King Solomon. Not only has Solomon’s desire for “wisdom” directly contradict the instructions of the Garden of Eden (Do not partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), but Howard-Brook speculates that Solomon might also be the model for the wicked Pharaoh in the Exodus story. Come Out, My People contends that throughout the Bible there is a battle between those worshipping a god of Empire and those who worship the God of Creation who rejects the path of domination.
When the moveable and transient tent of the Tabernacle was replaced with the monumental fixed Temple, a repressive tax structure was also required to provide for the upkeep and staffing – creating a pyramid-like hierarchy which restricted access to the divine.
I should have had my radar up in Sunday School when I learned that the offspring of the illicit relationship of David with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals who David had killed in battle to cover-up his adultery, was a boy child named Solomon. Not an auspicious start, realizing we cannot blame the child for his parent’s actions. But if your Sunday School upbringing was like mine, we are seduced by the tales of Solomon’s “great wisdom” and his magnificent Temple while overlooking or minimizing the slave labor, oppressive taxes, foreign alliances through multiple marriages, the harem of more than 700 concubines, … . The list goes on and on. We, instead, focus on the Proverbs, pearls of wisdom, as if that balances out Solomon’s standing army and cruel forced labor.
But Jesus reminds us, “Even Solomon in all his glory wasn’t dressed as well as the wildflowers blooming in the meadow”.
Wes Howard-Brook reminds us that the technology of the written text was not possible until the empirical reign of David and Solomon because no one had the time or ability to hire “scribes” before then – so the earliest books in the Hebrew Bible were the accounts written of and by the monarchy with the accounts and stories of creation, Abraham and Sara, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and even Samuel all written later. So how much of the re-telling of the original stories of the founding of the Hebrew people and their escape from Egypt was written as a critique of the Imperial project that was steering the people toward a captivity in Babylon?
We can look at the account of Samuel being pressured by the people for a King to be a nice, quaint story – interesting but not relevant for us today. Quaint, maybe in the same way that Attorney General Gonzales, John Yoo, Delahunty, and other White House sycophants claimed for the Geneva Conventions when the question of torture arose. “The Geneva Conventions are quaint’, Gonzales said in an interview. Oh, we shouldn’t say “torture”. We “don’t torture”. Just say, “Enhanced interrogations”.
Well, maybe this story has something to tell us today about what has become an “imperial presidency”. Yes, the founders of the American Republic wanted limited powers, checks and balances. But followers of “American exceptionalism” don’t like limits and restrictions – after all, we are “the last, best hope for the world”. Virtually every modern-day President has embraced American Exceptionalism and are roundly criticized if they don’t verbally proclaim it with some frequency. If you question whether or not the American presidency has approached “king-like” pretensions, I would point to Obama’s recent visit to Minneapolis where seats at the luncheon went for $50,000 each with the promise of a photo and minimal “face time “ with his majesty. In the recent Republican primary, one losing candidate for the throne was given $20 million from one billionaire donor! One doesn’t have a democracy when positions of power are up for auction.
Today we have an “Assassin-in-Chief” – a President that brags about creating a “kill list” in articles written for the NY Times after interviews with key Administration players. And it is further justified by downplaying civilian causalities in drone strikes by casually declaring that any male between the ages of 14 and 50 killed must be “militants” and our corporate press obliges in this outrageous falsehood. From spying on us through eavesdropping on our cell phones and intercepting our email, to active assassination of US citizens without trial or any public evidence released, our imperial presidency fulfills the prescient warning of Samuel about the people wanting a “king to rule over us” – all because of fears about “national security”.
Today, instead of the forced labor and the seizing of crops of Solomon’s day, our imperial leaders pay for their weapons and wars through taxes. As our MN ASAP ministry so clearly describes, our “kingly” government takes the resources needed for the common good and instead conspires with greedy corporations to turn ploughshares into swords.
Moving back to our Gospel text from Mark: Jesus’ family thinks, “He’s out of his mind”. They want to call him home; take him off the healing and preaching and teaching circuit because he is stirring up criticism and trouble from the political and religious leaders. I’m sure they felt Jesus might be putting them in danger if the authorities were getting upset. If not putting them in danger, Jesus is at least putting himself at danger and his family wants to protect him- as well as their own reputations. To his extended family, Jesus is deluded; to his political opponents he is demonic.
Ched Myers writes about this: “To put it in terms of the political war of myths, when the ruling class feels its hegemony threatened, it tries to neutralize challengers by identifying them with the mythic cultural arch-demon. … in our cold war dualism, Jesus is being labeled a ‘communist’”.
How many of you have had family members question or criticize you for speaking out against the war, or torture, or extra-judicial assassination by drones? I know my parents and my brothers have more than once questioned my mental state or at least my “political” judgments. They haven’t exactly told me that I’m out of my mind but I’m sure my latest decision to go to jail instead of doing community service has caused a few of my relatives to roll their eyes and shake their heads in pity for what Christine has to put up with.
Jesus is being accused of being in league with Beelzebub or bul or some strange name to us. Maybe if we heard the text as accusing Jesus as giving material support to terrorists, labeled as a Communist, or anarchist, or being an atheist or Unitarian we’d understand this charge better. His opponents are just throwing about accusations, seeing what will stick to discredit him. He’s in league with Satan. Jesus’ response? Satan cannot cast out Satan; a house divided cannot stand.
How can we criticize China or the Philippines of violating human rights when we refuse to prosecute those who ordered and justified torture? How can we condemn Iran for pursuing weapons we already have and have used? How can we demand fair treatment for dissidents in China when “Occupy” sites in most major cities are routinely shut down because of “urban camping” regulations? Last week President Obama admitted he ok’d a cyber attack against computers in Iran. If any nation did that to us, you can imagine how quickly we would retaliate with guns and bombs.
Later on in Mark’s Gospel, we learn the name of one of the demons Jesus cast out: the name was “Legion” – just like the name of the Roman troops occupying their homeland. If Jesus’ family heard that remark, they’d re-double their efforts to keep him at home – or at least to “moderate his message”.
So what do we do when even our families don’t understand us? Mark gives us a new kinship model sometimes called fictive kinship. It is based on obedience, not to the clan patriarch or family, but to God alone. Jesus calls us to be his brothers, his sisters – to form a new community.
Jesus didn’t get a lot of accolades in his day – neither should we. In a society comfortable with kings or imperial presidents, those who choose to follow a man “who had no where to lay his head”, a man whose rightful place should have been in the “holy-of-holies” of Herod’s rebuilt Temple but instead lived off the generosity of others. When we choose to follow that man, we had better expect a similar reward. When the heavy hand of the Temple elite and the Roman occupiers came down, most of Jesus’ disciples scattered. But who stayed, looking up at that rebel on the cross? His mother, the same one who just chapters before in this story thought he was crazy. She obviously reassessed, had a change of heart and mind. Maybe we all deserve another chance to choose to follow the carpenter from Galilee.
We can become his brothers, his sisters: a community of discipleship.