Preached by Matthew Neufeld on June 10, 2018.
Costs and Gains In Radical Change
I know it’s not really ‘acceptable’ to make political pronouncements from the pulpit, but I’m going to anyway: I’m a monarchist, and I think Canada should repatriate the dynasty. Canada should remain as it’s always been, a constitutional monarchy, but we should insist that our next crowned head reside in Canada, not just visit us every two years.
I was reminded of this conviction after seeing a short video making the rounds on social media about how legally, Parliament could make Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle King and Queen of Canada simply by passing a law—no arduous constitutional amendment required!
The position that I just outlined—keeping the monarchy but ‘nationalizing’ the dynasty’—is I would argue a classical progressive conservative, or conservative progressivist, position. It has elements of both continuity (remain a monarchy) and change (new dynasty living in Canada). There’s bit of the new mixed up in with the old.
Our text from 1 Samuel 8 is a story of radical change in Israel’s history—the advent, the beginning of kingship. When we consider the story and its consequences in a broader biblical context, we see that God worked good from the mixed results—the costs and the gains—of this profound change. And I believe that holds for us as God’s church and God’s individual people. God works good from the costs and gains of radical change.
Radical comes from the word radix which means roots. To call for or experience radical change means you pull everything up, shake off the dirt, and start all over. Sometimes radical change can be mostly for the good, and sometimes mostly for the bad. Most times, radical change brings a mix of good and bad, of gains and costs.
Our story opens with the elders of Israel—the leaders whom you’d expect to want to keep the status quo in place; the typical ‘conservatives’—asking Samuel, God’s appointed prophet and Judge, to give their nation a king. But why did they want a king? The text suggests a couple of reasons: Samuel’s sons, who he made sub-judges, were corrupt and justice was not being served (v. 3). Later, it’s clear that the elders want a king who will be a military leader, a man ‘to go out before us and fight our battles’ (probably against the neighbouring Philistines). The existing system of tribal governance, with elders providing leadership, judges like Samuel meeting out justice, and both organizing temporary armies on an as-needs basis, wasn’t sufficient for the challenge of the present. Another commentary suggests that the country was experiencing major social and economic change, and that a wealthier faction of the people wanted a system of government that could better protect their power and status.
Whatever the reason, Samuel was not pleased with the request. The older versions say that it was ‘evil in his eyes’. But Samuel decided to ask God about it, and surprise, surprise, God agreed.
The LORD does make it clear that the people’s request for a king is not an affront to Samuel, but to God. Asking for a king is an act of disloyalty; the people are forsaking God’s leadership of their affairs. ‘They have rejected me from being king over them’ (v. 7). You might think that God would simply say ‘no way, you faithless and ungrateful lot’. But instead, God says ‘listen to their voice’—give them what they want. But first, God wants to warn the people about what exactly they’re getting into by embracing human kingship, ‘just like other nations’.
So it’s an interesting development. God characterizes the elder’s request for radical change—a new system of government—as a sin, but allows the people to go ahead. But before they go ahead, they’ll hear from God about the consequences—and they’re aren’t all rosy. So the LORD accepts the radical change, and critiques it.
Versus 10 to 18 outline the ‘ways of the king who will reign over you’. The verb ‘way’ and what follow are a pun in Hebrew. The people had asked for a king to govern us—the word is mispat, which can mean to judge/do justice; the word mispat also means ‘ways’, ‘habits’, ‘customs’. The people asked for a king to judge/do justice, and God through Samuel warns them about the ‘ways’ or ‘customs’ of the king.
The ways of the king do not look all that great. The king will take and take and take from the people. The centralization of political power will mean a redistribution of wealth up from the people to the monarch, often explicitly so that he can reward his friends. The king will seize lands and houses, he will appropriate labour, he will levy taxes, he will conscript young men for war, and they will die in the many thousands.
It’s telling to read different commentators’ interpretations on this list of royal abuses—the comments suggest something about the scholar’s political commitments. So Jewish scholar Robert Altar says that the list of abuses sounds like a libertarian’s critique of taxes and ‘big government’. Walter Bruggemann, by contrast, says that the list means that God thinks the monarchy is fundamentally unjust—a tyranny meant to siphon wealth away from ordinary folk and enrich the powerful. There is certainly a strong criticism of what kings can do in this passage. The most devastating is v. 17: ‘he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves’ [repeat].
Kingship, in other words, is a reversal of Exodus, of the people’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Instituting a monarchy and Israel is bringing back Pharaoh—the tyrant of the Nile.
But even after this warning about the king’s ways, the elders still want one. They want a ‘strong man’ who will lead the troops into battle, who will fight their wars, just like the kings of other nations do.
In this request, to be like other nations, there are echoes of Adam and Eve’s sin in Paradise. Wanting to be ‘like god’, the first human pair disobeyed the Almighty’s one rule, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve wanted to ‘rise above their station’, their place in the hierarchy of the Garden of Eden, and in so doing lost it. The elders of Israel now want to rise above their place as people ruled by the LORD alone—they want to exceed God’s appoint boundaries and be like everyone else.
But God lets Israel have a king, but someone chosen by God and anointed by Samuel, the LORD’s prophet.
God sometimes lets us introduce radical change even when it’s not all to our good. And God also works good from the mixed results of our radical changes.
Kingship had important historical and political consequences for Israel. Their first king, Saul, was not a huge success. But their second king, David, was a man after God’s own heart. Under David, Israel captured Jerusalem, which became its capital. The country’s territory expanded under David, and under his successor Solomon. Solomon built the Temple, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and centre of the kingdom. But Solomon also married foreign women, who insisted that they be allowed to build temples to their gods. So people were tempted to worship false gods instead of the LORD. Kings like Ahab nearly crushed worship of the LORD, but king Josiah led a major renewal of religion. Kingship ended in Judah in 587 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. It was restored briefly by Herod in the first century BC, only to end for good when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. The political institution had done some good and a lot of bad for Israel. It’s extinction suggested that God did not want his people to have monarchs again.
Kingship also had important theological consequences for Israel, and the church. David, the second king, who brought the Ark into Jerusalem, who fought off the Philistines for good, became the ideal king. He was the anointed one of God—the Messiah—the one whom the people in Jesus’ time hoped would come back and restore the kingdom to Israel. This partly explains why people were so excited about Jesus’ talk about the kingdom of God—would he, they wondered, would Jesus usher in the return of David’s throne and the glorious days of the old ruler? As we know, Jesus did not restore David’s kingdom; he died naked and without friends on a cross. Above his head the Romans insisted on putting the title ‘King of Jews’. They did that to mock Jesus and his peoples’ hopes for national spiritual and political rebirth. But God had the last laugh—he raised Jesus from the dead. As Christians we confess that Christ (which means Messiah) Jesus is now reigning with God the Father, and Jesus’ Spirit rules the church, his people in the word. One day Jesus will return to judge—to do justice— all people as the King of Kings.
God works good from the mixed results of radical change.
There are other examples in history that bear out this message. The Reformation was a very complicated event with many consequences over which theologians and historians still argue. The Protestant Reformation, as we heard recently, encouraged literary by promoting Bible reading; it make church government less top-down—Presbyterians have a mixed form of governance (ruling councils of teaching and lay elders). There were good things wrought by the Reformation. But it wasn’t all good. The Reformation polarized Western Europe into competing camps of Christians, Protestants vs Catholics. Sometimes the competition got very violent, leading to great loss of life. Much that was beautiful about the liturgy was chucked by rigorous Protestants—stained glass, choirs, organs. Protestant churches rejected the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus, and so the symbolic feminine in worship and spirituality withered (so here’s an irony: the Protestants lost Marian devotion in the 16th century but began ordaining women ministers in the 20th; Catholics kept Mary but still ordain men only).
Even so, by 1600, roughly three generations after Luther’s protest, Catholics too had undergone major reform. If you had to pick which of the two, Protestants or Catholics, were more devoted to living out God’s love in the world (as opposed to enhancing their power and influence), it would have been a coin toss.
God works good from the mixed results of radical change.
This isn’t just the case for nations and churches; it’s true for individuals too. I think for example of my father. He began his career as a school teacher. And evidently a very good one. By his third year of teaching he was encouraged to take M. Ed. courses in order to qualify for administrative positions. He was being groomed to be a principle or superintendent. But then in 1973-74, my father had crisis. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Am I really who God wants me to be?
The answer was, evidently, no. So in the summer of 1974, my family moved to California so my father could attend seminary. That move was the first of many—to Manitoba to work as a teacher at a Bible school, then to Alberta to be a minister, then back to Manitoba, then to Ontario, then back to Manitoba, then two years in Europe as an English teacher, then back to Manitoba to be a minister. All along the way, he, my parents, and us children got to know what it’s like to live in different provinces, to meet many different people, to have to make new friends. We learned to take a ‘critical’ approach to any one place—just because it’s ‘normal’ to do x here doesn’t mean it’s normal everywhere. So we learned to be resilient in the face of change, a quality that is very helpful later in life.
But all those moves, all those transitions, also produced periods of instability and uncertainty for all of us, with costs to mental health. It’s not easy being the ‘new kid’ at a school; and it’s not always a joy to be the ‘preacher’s kid’ in a small town.
The life of my family after that radical change—from teaching school to Christian ministry—was not all good, nor was it all bad. The consequences for us were mixed, and are still working themselves out. Many of you know what it’s like to leave behind everything you knew, your families and home towns, to make a new start in another country. It’s not easy. It brings gains and it has costs.
In my father’s case, passed away now six years, the consequences are no longer important. But I am confident, when I remember the large number of people at his funeral, and the things they said about him, I am confident that God worked good from my father’s life.
There are times when we face a choice, like the elders did, of sticking to the old ways, what’s traditional, or striking out on radically different path. Our text doesn’t set out a firm set of rules about if and when we should change, or how much tradition we should keep or how much change we should embrace. If and when we get a new minister, there will almost certainly be some things that stay the same, and somethings will change. Can our traditions survive in a re-formed way? Do we need to start from scratch in some areas?
We don’t know what the outcomes will be, but probably they won’t be 100% terrible or 100% tremendous. Change brings mixed outcomes. And Christ Jesus is king, God is Sovereign, the Spirit is among us. And God works good from the messy realities of staying the same and making a change.