“No More Kings”
1 Samuel 8:4-20
1 Samuel 8:4-20
4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, “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. 8Just 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. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10So 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 plow 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.” 19But 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.”
Do the words “School House Rock,” ring a bell with anyone? I loved School House Rock, cartoons trying to fill young minds with little grammar or mathematics or civics lessons set to catchy music in between mindless episodes of Bugs Bunny or Captain Caveman. (When I find these on youtube they are underwhelming now, but I was crazy about them 35 years ago.) One of my favorites had this little Mayflower boat rocking back and forth between England and what would become America, telling a bloodless, bare bones version of why the colonists revolted and overthrew the British [that’s called taxation without representation and it’s not fair!]. Cartoon king sticking his tongue out from his throne, colonists cheering when they get their “free country.” Chorus “No more kings… [we’re going to elect a president]… No more kings…[he’s gonna do what the people want]” “No more kings… no more kings…” True fact about me: as much as I know this is a myth, I showed this to my kids before our first trip to Boston, and got choked up.
Somehow this idea of “no more kings” stuck. It became embedded in how I saw myself, my country, power – both its uses and abuses. Idea that when one person is in power, he or she answers to the people. “No more kings” meant there should be some way to hold a human authority in check, to prevent any other King George-type of situation.
When the people of Israel come to Samuel requesting a king, this is the kind of dilemma he faces. Somehow along the way he has seen what happens when one person takes charge of a community of people. He has discovered the truth of that saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Samuel the prophet and priest warns the people that a king will take advantage of them and not just through taxation without representation. He tells them, “You will be pressed into his retinue, your sons conscripted into the king’s army, your daughters forced to work as perfumers and bakers and perhaps a few other not-so-savory tasks. Not only will your king tax you exorbitantly, you will become his slaves. You’re going to hate this. You’re going to cry to God, but you will have dug a hole for yourselves.”
And did you hear how they replied? It’s not a decision for a representative democracy. No, the people refuse to listen. The people want a king – to be like other nations and to fight their battles for them. It’s not enough to have to trust that God is in charge. The people need a king.
And they get a king – a whole line of kings – that end up fulfilling Samuel’s prophecy for the most part.
I should tell you that the stories of the kings of Israel are compiled of different agendas. Sometimes the kings are heroes; sometimes the kings are despots; sometimes the kings are wise; sometimes the kings are utter fools. No matter how the story is told, the good kings recognize not so much what the people want, but what God wants for the people. Those kinds of kings are rare, though. It’s why we have more writings from prophets, calling the kings and leaders to remember justice for resident aliens [immigrants and refugees of ancient Israel], for widows and orphans – those who did not have the protection of a husband or father and were therefore rendered powerless.
Here’s what I wonder: we in the United States get the “no more kings” part. I don’t know anyone who says they want a king. But when I hear the news of Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson – or walk the streets of Philadelphia, Atlanta, DC [it doesn’t all make the news because it’s not new] I still see fiefdoms, where Samuel’s prophecy gets played out a thousand times over. No, I don’t see slaves per se, but still the basic problem that Samuel described, where one or a few benefit from an economic system that leaves the crowds behind. Not enough of us get to be the descendants of happy pilgrims, if there ever was such a thing. The danger, especially for folks who know better, is that we become like the Israelites, aware of all the problems – not just for others, but for us – and we start to believe that this is just the way it has to be, and we plead national security or safety in the streets as our excuse to save ourselves. Those words from Jesus – those who would save their lives must lose their lives – should start to feel relevant and personal.
Western Church, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I know enough about what has been preached from this pulpit to know that this is not the gospel as it is preached here. I know enough about how you commit yourselves within the church and beyond to know that Samuel’s words would ring true to you, that you want to live in the way of Jesus. I also know that you live in the same world that we all do, where we can try to make changes as individuals, or even congregations, but often end up frustrated that the –isms – racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia – still seem to hold sway.
In one of my interviews with the PNC, David Little asked a question. It was a paragraph long; if you know David, that should come as no surprise. But the short version was a question about the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – why didn’t people talk more about Niebuhr these days? Good question, I think reflected his concern that more people don’t hear prophets like Samuel.
Niebuhr wrote this book called Moral Man and Immoral Society in the middle part of the last century, and he pointed out the role of power – who has it and who doesn’t – as being the central moral issue. Even though individuals could act morally, collective systems don’t seem to have that capacity. Nations have little ability to reflect on the injustice they perpetuate and therefore tend to perpetuate self-interest of some over justice for the many. This may or may not be true – I tend to think we have some opportunities here in the United States. I also think we tend to act a lot less morally than we should, but that’s a sermon for a different Sunday.
Niebuhr also believed in the power of God to make a difference, to redeem us from our worst selves. And he wrote this prayer, “intended as a guide for politics and history more than personal… renewal” : God, grant us serenity to accept that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.
I think it would have been Samuel’s prayer, given the conversation he had with God. It’s also a great prayer for all of us as we come to the table of the One who shows us the peace, courage, and wisdom we need, who invites not just us, but all the ways of our world – all of our cities, our neighborhoods, our media and our finances – to experience the freedom of no more kings, no power other than love. May we find that power here, for us and for all. Amen.