10th June, 2018
One of the major biblical themes is the theme of justice. It is a theme that is explored throughout scripture as those who wrote various books wrestled with questions such as the meaning of justice, how the justice of God is different to the justice of humanity. More than that the concept of justice is explored at a practical level in the many stories that ask how justice is found in very common human experiences.
It’s unsurprising that preachers continue to circle back to this topic, because week after week the passages we read each Sunday raise questions about justice that are as relevant to us today as they were thousands of years ago. That said justice is also a topic that can be easy to shy away from. Questions of justice can make us feel inadequate and uncomfortable, because often we are in the position of having to give something up in order for justice to be reached.
There are of course other reasons to steer clear of justice as a topic. I will admit that sometimes as I look around this congregation and see many people who have had long and often quite prestigious careers in the law and as part of the judiciary, I feel somewhat inadequate to speak on such matters. The good news is that the bible constantly reminds us that those who are called to speak on matters of justice often feel unfit for the task. We heard an example of that last week in the story of Samuel who like many prophets was initially reluctant to speak openly about his experience of God.
This week we return to the story of Samuel. This is no longer Samuel the timid boy, but an older, wiser Samuel who was not only a prophet but was now a judge of Israel. In what sense was Samuel a judge? Despite the fact that we have a book in the bible called Judges, much of what we know about this period of Jewish history is conjecture. The book of Judges is unlikely to be historically accurate, but is the best summary of the pre-monarchy period of Jewish history that we have. As best we can tell the people named as Judges in this time were not primarily concerned with weighing up issues of justice as a modern judge does. Judges in this biblical period were more or less elected leaders who were called into the roll typically in response to a crisis of some kind. More often than not the crisis would be an invasion from another nation or tribe. This has led some scholars to suggest that the Judges were more often than not tribal warlords, rather than arbitrators of any kind. In fact they may not have even been recognised by all Jewish people, but might have been local tribal leaders. In a sense we could liken them to an elected mayor, a person with certain regional responsibility which is of course a long way from having a single ruler of an entire nation.
As it turns out the book of Samuel which follows the book of Judges is really the story of a transition from one form of leadership to another. Samuel himself is the last of the Judges and finds himself in the position of having to address the desire of his community to have a king. The request is a logical one. The Hebrew people have been looking at the ways other tribes and nations have organised themselves. More than that they see how successful those other groups have become. You might recognise that behaviour. How often have you been part of an organisation that begins to think that they should follow the competition? It’s easy to look over the fence and think, look how well they are doing, maybe we should be more like them.
What we find in today’s reading from the book of Samuel is Samuel’s response to this seemingly reasonable way of thinking. Samuel is not pleased. George Orwell said, “”In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”” Samuel undertakes such a revolutionary act by warning the Israelites of the consequences of choosing a king. He tries to break through their self-deception with words of truth. A king will take your sons and use them as soldiers, he warns. A king will raise up a great army, the implication being that many will die as the result of the wars a king will undertake. A king will take your daughters as servants. A king will take your best produce and bestow it on those he favours. All are fair assessments of feudalism.
Samuel’s warning runs much deeper though. The offence he takes at the request for a king to be his successor, is because he knows that Israel already has a king and that king is God. Samuel also remembers the lessons of history. Samuel remembers his people’s experience of empire. He remembers that they were slaves of the Egyptian Empire. He also remembers the cost of escaping from slavery as well as the cost of building a community that was based on the principles of loving God and loving each other.
And that is really the nub of it for Samuel. Why do his people want to forsake their own identity in order to be like others. Why would the people who have experienced the worst aspects of empire now choose to establish an empire of its own. As John Pilger once said, “…empires have nothing to do with freedom. They’re vicious, they are about conquest and theft and control and secrets.” – John Pilger, The war on democracy
And yet the trappings of empire are highly seductive. Empires promise affluence, expansion, greater access to resources. In short Empires are clear about the measures of success. But in any imperial system there must be those who pay the cost of that success. Those are the stories that empires hide or discredit.
As a church it is very easy to fall into imperial thinking. It is not difficult to find expansionist ideas in the bible and to see our work as primarily being one of spreading our message as far as possible regardless of the cost. It is easy for us to look to the churches with hundreds in attendance and wonder how we can be more like them. But I think such ideas are hijacking deeper biblical principles.
Jesus himself did not run a mega-church. Sure, we are told that there were crowds, but on the night before he died, when he instituted the Eucharist, it was only a group of 13 that gathered together. Yes, Jesus is reputed to have said that we are to make disciples of all nations, and yet he also said, when two or three gather in my name I am with them. Certainly the latter suggests that Jesus valued the smallest group and named that as the place in which he would be truly present. And like Samuel and the prophets before him, Jesus named the ideal community as being one that loves God and loves each other. Such an idea cuts against imperial ideas where only a few benefit from the work of many.
Ultimately these thoughts are a question of justice. Are we a just society, are we a just community, are we a just church community. Do we place valuing all people over our desire for progress, success, growth, however we define those things? Samuel’s concern was that the choice of monarchy over a more egalitarian society was not the choice God would have them make.
In the end Samuel’s warning about the consequences of choosing the ways of empire over the ways of God proved to be well founded. Wars were won and lost. Kings enjoyed great wealth and luxury at the expense of their people. But worse still, God’s chosen people lost their way. By sacrificing their true identity, they continued to experience the worst moments of their history over and over again.
Maybe that’s the lesson for us today. To know who we are as God’s people. To value what we have regardless of how much or little there is. To seek to love God in all that we do. And to love and care for others as we would like to be loved and cared for. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant