Reflection on Samuel

In today’s reading from Samuel, the Israelites ask for a “king to govern us, like other nations.” Samuel hears this request, and tells God, and both Samuel and God agree it is a bad idea.
God tells Samuel to tell the Israelites about all the things they will give up for a king. When you read this list, it sounds kind of crazy that the Israelites actually want a king.
God warns the Israelites that the king is going to “take your sons” for commanders, and chariot drivers, and people to run before the chariots. So, God is warning the Israelites that this king is going to determine where many of the younger men are for much of the year.
And God warns that the king is going to “take your daughters” to be perfumers, and cooks, and bakers for the royal court. So, the women of working age won’t be producing for the family, or the local community, but for the king.
If the king is going to take sons and daughters, and tell them where to work and what to do, the king is going to disturb expectations of being a parent, and a child, and a worker.
God further warns that the king is going to change the relationship between the Israelites and the land. God warns the Israelites that the king is to take a lot of the good land away from them. The king will take “the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.” What do we know about vineyards and olive orchards? They take a long time to be productive. Those who sew do not always stay long enough to reap. The courtiers are going to take the things that other people have worked long and hard to establish.
And God warns that the king is going to take the animals and people that the Israelites use to get work done. The king is going to take the “male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.” The Israelites are presumably used to commanding the work of the male and female slaves, and the donkeys and cattle, but they are going to lose that control.
God further warns that the king is also going to take one-tenth of their flocks, and, most ominously, “you shall be his slaves.” We know that this comes after the exodus from Egypt—the Israelites have spent a great deal of time getting out of being slaves.
Why would they ever agree to be slaves again? Why would they agree to this kind of abuse of authority?

But if we look earlier in the book of Samuel, we see that there have been other, less formal attempts at getting authority figures for the Israelites, and those authority figures have abused their power, too.
We have Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Eli exercises authority properly, but his sons do not. We learn that Eli’s sons are taking more than their share of the sacrifices at the tabernacle. And they are also having relations with the women who gather at the tabernacle. Eli himself may be righteous, but his sons are abusing their authority. So Eli brings up Samuel at Shiloh. And as we know, Samuel becomes a prophet, and a judge. Samuel is good, but his sons become judges also and do not follow his ways. They take bribes and pervert justice. So, Samuel himself may be righteous, but his sons are abusing their authority.

The Israelites may be willing to take on the burdens of having an established king because at least they will know what their obligations are. They’ve already been living with people taking too much of their sacrifices and their women and their money… but on the sly or by surprise. Maybe they just want to know what the cost is up front.

On reflection the Israelites are coming together to make a social contract. They are saying that they will give certain things and get a king in return. They are deciding what balance they want between being left to fend for themselves versus giving things up for the sake of other people, even other people they may not know or even like.

This is an old piece of scripture, but we are still working through these issues it raises. Certainly, we’ve had an extended conversation in the last ten years in this country about what we owe the national government and what it owes us. What the power of the President should be, and what his obligations should be. That’s still with us, but it is a political conversation.

But this is also the assigned reading for the second Sunday after Pentecost, a time when we reflect on the formation of the early church. This season seems particularly rich because we, as a community of St. Alban’s, are somewhat in transition in a process of formation or re-formation.

So, what is the connection between this reading from Samuel and the early church? There are likely several, but to me, I think of how before his death Jesus said that he had a kingdom, but it was not of this world. He said if it was of this world, his followers would be fighting for it, but since it is not of this world, his followers were not. So, in the Samuel reading, God tells the people what they owe a temporal king, a king of this world.

What can the reading tell us about what we owe Jesus, a king who is not of this world? One way to answer that is to say we owe time and treasure, to both a king of this world and a king not of this world.

Another answer is that we are expected, as a community, to determine how our relationship with God will affect our relationship with each other. How much will we contribute of our time and treasure? How will it affect how we work, how we parent? How will it affect how we treat the earth, and the animals over whom we exercise authority? How will it affect our relationships with our bosses, and with those over whom we exercise authority?

I certainly don’t have all the answers to these questions, but this season gives us the opportunity to think about them and incorporate them into our work as we prepare to eventually come back together in person.