Who Will You Follow?
Politics is in the air. The primary season is nearing its close, and general elections are in the offing. Much is to be lost or gained by the different parties involved. It’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla, letting the partisan bombast define our identity.
I do believe in being engaged in public life, as a Christian and as houses of worship, and I’m engaged politically, but where do we place our ultimate allegiance? Who will we follow? When we look at the world in which we live, what defines our sense of being? Do we let loyalty to party or ideology define our purpose or is it God who defines who we are? What determines our focus in life? When we engage in public life, as we should (in my opinion), what guides our engagement?
Each of these lectionary texts designated for this week have their own identity, but each does speak to how we define our identity as people of God. If you’re a preacher, you have to walk gently with these particular texts, especially the readings from the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel. Both require careful and patient interpretation. At first glance the reading from 1 Samuel might appear to be a proof text for the Tea Party platform, but does it really provide solace for small government advocates? And then in Mark 3, Jesus upsets our sense of family values. I expect that many preachers will join me in taking refuge in Paul’s more comforting text, but even it should prove challenging to the way we envision the world.
As we read this passage from 1 Samuel, it raises all manner of questions about the world and how we live in it. How does God rule and what is the role of government? The people demand a king – like everyone else – who will watch over them, protect them, and guide them. The writers of 1 Samuel interpret this request not as a rejection of Samuel’s leadership, but of God’s. Evidently they don’t trust God to do the right thing, and want what everyone else has. Hierarchy has its benefits. Whether in church or government, many people take comfort in letting someone else make the decisions. But, as the text shows, God tells Samuel to remind the people that they will give up much freedom in exchange for the “protection” provided by a monarchy. Now if you’re a religiously-inclined small government advocate this will seem like a good text to pull out, but be careful about what you ask for.
First, it’s important to recognize that this is not a call for the reign of individualism; it is a call for divine rule that has been exercised through the leadership of a prophet/judge rather than a monarchy. What they are rejecting is the reign of God, the reign of the one who had brought them up out of Egypt and had watched over them to that very moment. In requesting a king, they were declaring their belief that God’s reign is insufficient. In demanding a king, like the other nations, they were in essence walking into the arms of foreign gods. After all, monarchs often took on the aura of divinity, demanding homage as if they were divine beings. And such would be the case going forward. How would this homage be paid? Well, Samuel delivers the message – the monarch will conscript your sons to fill his army. He will take your servants – both male and female – for his own service. He will demand and receive your flocks. And in the end, you will become the slaves of this monarch. That’s just the way things work. So you have a choice – God’s reign or the monarch’s. They choose the monarch, and so Samuel installs Saul as king at Gilgal. They feign loyalty to God’s rule by offering sacrifices, but clearly they have put their trust on Saul’s broad shoulders, rather than on the justice and love of God.
Trust in God – that’s the message here. You can read a critique of government here if you like, but it’s really a pox on all your houses – those who like a big military and those who want to “soak the rich.” Rather than focus on the style of government, the word here is simple -- give your allegiance to God! Notice, though that God permits the government, and Samuel blesses it, but it comes second to our allegiance to God.
In this reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of our proper focus in life. It is God who deserves our allegiance and loyalty. It is God who will direct our lives and give them a sense of purpose. Paul can speak boldly the message of the gospel, because of his faith, knowing as he does that the “one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us with Jesus and he will bring us into his presence along with you” (2 Cor. 4:14 CEB). If God has raised Jesus from the dead, then there is no reason to fear. The blessing here is that through God’s grace the benefits of God’s reign spread further to more and more people, and this brings glory to God.
In this second Corinthian letter Paul consistently has to defend his ministry, and he does this in part by demonstrating the singularity of his devotion, no matter what may come his way. He can face the realities of persecution and resistance, because he knows that while the body my break down on the outside, the inner person continues to strong as he walks in the ways of Jesus. He writes: “The temporary minor problems (persecution in this case) are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison” (vs. 17). This isn’t an argument for becoming doormats. It doesn’t mean that wives should allow their husbands to beat them for the glory of God (in the hope that submission will convert them). It is a recognition however that facing life with boldness leads to maturity and growth internally (spiritually). Therefore, Paul believes that what he is experiencing here and now is nothing compared with what is in store for him.
Of course, some read a passage like this and see it as promising pie in the sky, heavenly sunshine that denies the value of this life. We can fall into the trap of reading this in Gnostic terms as a denial of the body, but Paul has a strong theology of resurrection that counters such a view. He’s not contrasting body and soul, with the body as a prison to be cast off. Still, we need to recognize the truth that Marx discerned -- religion can be the opiate of the people – promise them heaven, then they’ll be compliant on earth. Marx didn’t opine this without evidence. Down through history the church has been complicit in promising heaven in exchange for obedience to the powers that be. But, Paul isn’t advocating such a view. He trusts that heaven awaits in all its glory, but it is a promise that gives confidence. If one does not fear death, then one is more able to hear and embrace the calling to serve God’s realm.
If Samuel bemoans the people’s rejection of God’s real and Paul speaks of the empowerment that is derived from the hope of the resurrection, Jesus redefines the nature of our relationships with each other. There is a lot of talk these days, especially on the religious right of so-called “family values,” which are in essence the defense of the rather modern idea of the priority of the nuclear family (mom/dad/2 kids/dog/cat). Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters? That’s the question Jesus raises after his own family comes to take him home, believing he is insane. The legal authorities seem to concur, declaring that he must be demon possessed.
On the charge of demon-possession, Jesus pleads not guilty. How can he be the tool of Satan and at the same time cast out demons? To Jesus this makes no sense, for a “kingdom involved in a civil war will collapse” (vs. 23). That seems like a rather common sense analysis. From there he goes on to a discussion of what is often called the “unpardonable sin,” the sin of blasphemy. What is blasphemy? Well, here at least it seems that this involves attributing to the Holy Spirit the work of Satan. You can’t keep on attributing to Satan that which is the work of God – that will not end well.
But, back to the families. What should we do with Jesus’ words about families? Here it seems that the family of Jesus rejects his ministry – even his mother seems to be drawn into the fray. But, the reality is, down through history, families have been divided by faith. Persons have converted, and have found themselves exiled from their families. So, what happens to such persons? Are the orphans? Or, do they become part of a new family? Are we part of a larger family, the family of Christ, joint heirs with Jesus, Paul would say?
Who shall we follow? Jesus’ own family thought he was crazy to be doing God’s business? To follow in the ways of God isn’t easy. There will be resistance. There will also be temptation to follow a different path. But, according to Paul, the hope of the resurrection gives us boldness to walk in the ways of God. May it be so!