Welcome to the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost. Our preacher this week is yours truly, and here are some thoughts about the texts assigned for this week.
1 Samuel 8: 4 – 20; 11: 14 - 15
My thanks to John Holbert who reminds us that we have embarked on a great literary adventure, a “ten-week look at the Bible's finest written story, the vast saga of Samuel, Saul, and David, spread over the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and the first two chapters of the book of 1 Kings. This magnificent epic presents the greatest portrayals of human characters in the ancient world, far out-stripping the figures of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, however much the likes of Achilles and Hector and Odysseus have become the best-known fictional portraits in the Western world.”
And, as I have pointed out before, it is important to remember that this is literature, not fact, not history, but – that does not make it any less true. These deep stories, these characters, created by brilliant writers who worked with folk legends and stories that they knew, open our imaginations to truths about ourselves and God. (If we have the courage to go there… bwahahahaha)
About the text. It seems that Israel wants a king. What is interesting is that what seems to drive that desire is the people’s distrust of Samuel’s sons, who – just like Eli’s sons last week – have abandoned the ways of their father, which is what draws Samuel into the service of YHWH in the first place. (Even in the OT, what comes around, goes around). Which leads us to the second interesting thing.
Kings were not unusual in the ancient world. Hammurapi – the guy with the Code – was entrusted with the kingship of Babylonia by the god Marduk. IT was understood that the gods created the monarchy so that their will could be carried out on earth by their chosen earthly rulers. Top down. That the Israelites want to institute the monarchy is a bottom up proposition. (So, they want to be like other nations, but they will not be). In fact, as Samuel fears, and as God already knows, the kings that rise from the masses will not carry out the will of God, but follow their own agendas. God tells Samuel to honor the wishes of the people. Saul is anointed. The results will be disastrous. Like Eli’s sons and the sons of Samuel, the sons of the kings will take the wrong road.
2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5:1
“So, we do not lose heart.”
It would have been easy for Paul to do that. As our Wednesday morning biblical scholars know, Paul spent a lot of time defending his ministry. That is the backdrop here.
In Corinth he is feeling pressure on many fronts. Missionaries of a more eloquent ilk – and with better credentials and connections – had arrived out of Jerusalem. He is facing a groundswell of criticism – people have accumulated as much dirt as possible, including charges that he collected money to line his own pockets and that he had reneged on a promise to return. Worse, perhaps, he was being ridiculed for his weak appearance, speech and manner.
Our text is just a sampling of his defense. We feel his pain as he declares, “I believed and so I spoke.” He places all his confidence in Christ who is his model for suffering – that is where love and caring are revealed, not in strength, not in power.
Mark 3: 20 - 35
Too much crammed into this text, so I’ll just sum up.
I would say that the two main points of the text revolve around the riddle asked by Jesus - namely, can Satan cast out Satan? - and, by the idea that a house divided cannot stand, a concept played out by the fact that Jesus’ own house appears to be divided as his mother and sisters and brothers come to take the troubled lad home. They are at odds – well, at least they see the current situation a bit differently - and the text ends with his claim that here, in truth, are my brothers and mother and sisters, that is, those who do the will of God.
It might help to ask just what do we mean by Satan in this context? (The other optional text from the Old Testament for this Sunday is about Adam and Eve and the serpent. I am not preaching on that text, but if I were connecting it to this one, I would quickly point out that the serpent is not Satan. The serpent is a serpent, that apparently – before he convinces Eve that she really wants to take a bite of that fruit – could walk and talk. For his part in the Garden of Eden story, he loses those abilities and is forced to spend the rest of his existence crawling around on his belly, just like the serpents we know. For their parts, Eve – and every woman after her – gets to experience great pain in childbirth and Adam – ad every man after him – will have to cope with the hardships and uncertainties that come with having to work for a living. It will be many years until Rudyard Kipling lets us know how the elephant got his trunk and the rhino his skin… I digress)
Satan - and I borrow from Rene Girard here – is not so much a who (after all, we are monotheistic and Satan is not God’s evil twin). Satan is not a specific being, but a what. To Mark’s Jesus’ way of thinking, Satan is a force, a system, or a power – but like the kingship of Saul in our Samuel lesson – a power that derives from the people, that is, from the way that they organize themselves into community and culture and how that is quickly corrupted. In fact, Satan has no real substance or power outside of human relationships and the systems that they build. Further, Girard would claim (I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightening, pp. 69 – 70) that if humanity were to organize itself differently, then Satan would have no power at all. (I’ll get right back to this)
But, Satan is casting out Satan, that is, the reason that the systems corrupt, is that we do divide the house. Our normal mode of existence is to always be against the other. We can never hope to hold a house together because we expel others at every chance we get. (Think systemic racism) Jesus understands that this cannot go on forever. The system is unsustainable. So, his mission is to disorganize and reorganize humanity in a different way – not based on accusation and expulsion, but on forgiveness and inclusion, and hasten the inevitable demise. His very articulating that in this chapter, deals a death blow to the Satanic powers that permeate the human landscape. Killing him - though that is what the powers organize to do – will not stop it.
There’s a lot more here, but it will have to wait for three years. See you on Sunday.