Which King Do You Follow?
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); July 22, 2012
Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34
Deacon Jim McFadden; Divine Savior Catholic Church
In order to understand the marvelous words from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we need to go far back in Israelite history—all the way back to the time of Samuel and Saul, some 400 years before Jeremiah lived and preached.
Recall that following the Exodus Experience c. 1200 b.c., the Israelites settled in the Promised Land. There, they were irregularly governed by judges, military and spiritual leaders, who had an intimacy with God. They governed on a kind of ad hoc basis: the people would lapse into idolatry, seduced by the Canaanite culture; they were then thrown into a crisis as the people would be oppressed by foreign powers; after hearing their cries of complaint, God sent judges to deliver them. Some of the judges were Samson Gideon, and Deborah. Read their stories in the book of Judges—it’s fascinating reading.
A key moment occurred when the Israelites felt threatened by the Philistines and, perhaps desiring to consolidate their political and economic power, they approached Samuel, who would be the last judge, and asked him for a king—that they wanted to be like the other nations, which, in the Bible, is always a bad thing. Israel is meant to be unlike the other nations—a sign of contradiction and that’s why Samuel, the de facto leader at the time, was so opposed to it. He knew that God alone should be the true king of Israel.
We should pause and know exactly what’s at stake here. What Samuel meant is that Israel should be a people who live out of God’s purposes and plans and not their own. It’s like the path of discipleship: it’s not our will and path, but God’s will and path that we obey and follow. But, now this principle is writ large at the political level: it should not be the people or their leaders that determine the fate of the people, but the will of God. It means that Israel should be a people who live in trust and who do not rely upon their own resources.
I would stress that this motif runs throughout the Old Testament; we see it over and over again. Does Israel trust in the Lord or does Israel trust in their own resources? By asking for a king, they were virtually saying that they wanted to trust in themselves. They wanted the stability, military security, and status of the other nations and to put their trust in these powers. They wanted to set their own political, economic, and social agenda and God could come along for the ride. They wanted, in short, what the other nations had. God wasn’t enough.
Now, here’s the thing: look in 1 Samuel 8 and you’ll find just what the false allegiance will bring. This passage contains the most scathing critique of political power that you’ll find in world literature. Anyone who may be seduced by worldly power, should look at 1 Samuel 8. What the prophet tells the people is that the very things they are seeking through a king—security, prestige, control, and comfort—will, in fact, be taken from them.
Now, again, this has nothing to say about governance. Whenever people gather together, they must politically and economically organize themselves to live in relative stability and harmony. But, what kingship came to mean in the eyes of Samuel and the critics of kingship was a shift of loyalty and allegiance from God to human rulers.
What then followed in Israelite history is exactly what Samuel predicted. That’s why 1 Samuel 8 is an interpretive key to the rest of the Old Testament. What we see in the history of Israelite kings is a rogues gallery of incompetent, self-absorbed, and power-hungry rulers. The Old Testament is very honest and accurate in describing the brutality, cowardice, and mean-spiritedness of the kings of Israel.
Now, with all of that background, we come to the time of Jeremiah around the 6th century b.c. Jeremiah as prophet was called by God to be God’s voice to God’s people. Jeremiah chastised them for clinging to their kings, and Jeremiah chastised the ruling kings: “Woe the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord….You have not cared for them.”
And as always, God does not leave God’s people in their mess. God through Jeremiah promises that “…I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and bring them back to their meadow.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that God would become the mayor of every little town in Israel or that God would become the governor of the people. Don’t read that God will be micro-managing the affairs of the people. What it does mean is that Yahweh and his desires would become the governing principles throughout the nation. Once again God reiterates that God will never abandon God’s people despite their choices.
It’s against this backdrop that we’re invited to read the very brief passage from Mark’s gospel for today. We learn that the disciples have returned from their journey in which they were instructed by Jesus not to take the comforts and securities of the world. This journey is very straightforward: they simply follow the promptings of Jesus; they abandon themselves to the only person that is worth that sacrifice. And, what were they proclaiming as they went? The Kingdom of God, which means that God’s principles will guide the people.
When the disciples return, Jesus looks up and sees a vast crowd. Who are they? It is the Israel that Jeremiah spoke of as being scattered and abandoned without a shepherd. His heart is full, because now He is there for them. He is Yahweh in person who is shepherding his people as God had always promised .
What Marks says quite simply is that “he began to teach them many things.” Jesus’ new teaching gives us a new life. What is that new teaching? Go to the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. If someone strikes you on one cheek, give him the other one… Love your enemy… Lend without expecting a return…Don’t worry about tomorrow: what you’re going to wear or eat. Jesus is challenging us to let go of the securities to which we cling; to let go of the things we think will give us happiness and learn how to trust.
Don’t get me wrong: the Sermon of the Mount does not mean you stop shopping at the super-market or the mall. That’s not the point. What’s important is not to rest in those things. Don’t find your ultimate security and comfort in them, but find it in trusting in the Lord.
That’s the lesson of the new king. This is the clearing of a new spiritual space; this is a new ordering of things, which Jesus calls precisely the Kingdom of God, which we pray for every time we pray the “Our Father.”
Yahweh, indeed, has come to shepherd his people. And, so what the people have longed for from ancient times—security, peace, resting in repose—would not come through worldly kings, which is the whole history of Israel; instead, it would come through Jesus, the Word made flesh, Yahweh incarnate.
So, People of God, where do you find your comfort? Where do you find your security? Which king do you follow? That’s the spiritual question.