Can't Get Any Respect! A Lectionary Reflection
Can’t Get Any Respect!
Rodney Dangerfield is well known for his claim to “get no respect.” Now Dangerfield has made a fortune with this persona, but respect is hard to get. It’s especially difficult to get respect in your own home or home town. It’s probably a case of being too well known. People know your foibles and your faults, especially if you’re young and inexperienced. It’s always best to get away from home and make a new life. That was true, at least, for me. Moving to California to go to seminary was the best move I ever made. I was able to escape from perceptions of who I was and what I was capable of doing. So, what does it take to get respect? Do you have to be a war hero like David? Despite all his exploits, Paul seems to struggle to get the respect of the Corinthians, and as for Jesus, his visit to Nazareth didn’t go so well. Perhaps there’s a more pertinent question to be asked and that has to do with the nature of respect we desire. Is it from the neighborhood or from God?
Our reading from 2 Samuel describes David’s ascent to the throne of All Israel. The shepherd boy from Bethlehem has grown up and now reigns supreme in Israel, though it took time for him to consolidate his power. He had become king of Judah at the age of thirty, but it took nearly eight more years for him to gain control of the entire country. In this case, his own tribe was open to his leadership, but the rest of the nation wasn’t as sure. Eventually, they came around and he would reign for another thirty-three years from Jerusalem. And as Mel Brooks said: "It's Good to be the King!"
It’s interesting how the writer speaks of David’s reign. Although most certainly he had gained control through military conquest and marriage alliances, we’re told that after he took control of Jerusalem, “he became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty (YHWH El-Shaddai) was with him” (vs. 10). In this reading, it wasn’t his fortress or military prowess that gained him his power; it was God who enabled this growth in power. Of course, as we read further we discover that there are two sides to the story. There is blessing, but there is great suffering and sorrow. There are coups by his sons, and there was that affair with Bathsheba, all of which shined a light on David’s darker side. And then as the story continues beyond his death into the reign of his son, Solomon, the nation goes to its greatest heights of power, but then in a moment of time, the empire crumbled. It goes back to the original arrangement, before David is acclaimed king of all Israel at Hebron. Was YHWH no longer with the nation? What kind of respect was there at that point? How does one come to be seen as a person whom God stands with?
Our image of David is defined in many ways by the stories we learned in Sunday school. We love to hear the stories of David and Goliath or David the Shepherd or maybe the David who sings soothing songs. We have this image of David being a man of great spiritual depth. But, like I said, there’s that darker side as well. What does that say to us? Who is this David who reigns in Israel, the one who will be the shepherd of the people and rule over them? Yes, to shepherd is to rule, and are we ready for that?
If David got some respect in his home town (though maybe not always in his household – consider Absalom’s revolt), Paul wasn’t always able to garner support for his work. The Corinthian letters continually raise this issue. Paul was the founder of the church, but there were forces present who constantly challenged his leadership. They seem to have embraced a different gospel, one that defined spirituality in hierarchical ways. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, we see the debate over spiritual gifts unfold. Some in the community seemed to have highly valued the ecstatic nature of speaking in tongues. Paul answers by noting he can speak with the best of them, but ultimately that ecstatic expression of faith is of little value without there being present the love of God (1 Cor. 13). The debate emerges again in this second letter, and there are those who claim to be especially spiritual, and want to hold this over Paul. If Paul is an Apostle, then certainly they’re “Super-Apostles.” As you read the letters you discover that this isn’t about the work of God, it’s about power. Power politics is a constant dilemma, and it has nothing to do with external partisan politics (though that can enter in). This is “spiritual politics.”
In his response, Paul makes it clear, though he starts by telling his own story in the third person (“I know a man in Christ . . .), that he’s had his share of ecstatic experiences in the Spirit. He’s seen things, whether in body or spirit, that are too unspeakable to even put in to words. But all of that is of no value. No, if he’s going to brag it’ll be about his weaknesses. He could brag about his spiritual experiences, but by doing that he would only make a fool of himself. Having spent time among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, I know the temptation to glory in ecstatic experiences. I remember the stress some placed on speaking in tongues, an emphasis that did little for my own spiritual development. But, it’s not just in charismatic circles that this temptation is present. People can place bible memorization or the eloquence of prayers at such a premium that they come to believe they are especially holy. Whenever I hear people using “thee” and “thou” in their prayers, I stop to wonder whether this is from the heart or for effect.
As for Paul, well, he’s had some outstanding revelations, but he’s also been humbled by what he calls a “messenger from Satan sent to torment so that I wouldn’t be conceited” (12:7 CEB). You hear echoes of Job’s experience – though in this case Satan sends the messenger, rather than God sending Satan. This thorn in the flesh – whatever it might be, and scholars have been speculating for centuries -- won’t go away, despite Paul’s requests of God. So, since it won’t go away, he will see in it a reminder that God can work through and in our own weaknesses. Indeed, he closes – “When I’m weak then I’m strong.” Why? Because if he’s weak in his own power, then he can be empowered by God. That takes humility, something the “Super-Apostles” know little about.
David seems to have been welcomed home – though it took time to bring the entire nation under his rule – but Paul struggled to maintain his leading role in Corinth. He’s not concerned about his own power, but rather about the Gospel that he had planted there. Starting in the first letter we see that the church is constantly under threat by outside forces, including social ones, which divide the community along socio-cultural lines. Then there’s Jesus. He goes home and the people don’t know what to make of him. He goes to the synagogue and tries to teach, but they’re “amazed,” and the amazement isn’t necessarily a positive response. Who does he think he is? We know his family. We know his father. He’s but a carpenter, a common laborer. We know his mother and his brothers, whom Mark names – James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, as well as sisters. We know this family, and knowledge of the family doesn’t seem to put Jesus in good stead with the people.
The town takes offense, and Jesus seems to throw his hands up, saying “a prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives, and in his own home.” How true is that?! So, since he couldn’t do any miracles, other than the ordinary ones like healing few sick, he moves on. As he does so, he sends off his disciples in pairs, telling them to take nothing with them except their staff. They couldn’t pack a lunch, a back pack, or even take along money. They had to live by faith, which meant, living on the benefice of the people. That was much more possible then than now. We’re not nearly as hospitable, especially in the west. Whenever they entered a home they were to stay there until moving on to the next town – don’t wear out your welcome. If you’re not welcomed, well, move on, shake the dust off your feet, and leave their fate in the hands of God. And so they go, preaching and healing, and making the Gospel known! Are we able to do the same?
What does it take to get some respect? Perhaps we’re asking the question of the wrong person!