Who is my king?

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, June 9, 2024: 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15); Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

The elders of Israel came to Samuel, and ask to have a king appointed over Israel. Samuel is not happy, but the Lord’s response is that the people “have rejected me from being King over them”. Samuel warns the people that a King will exploit them: take their sons for the military, draft workers to work his land, take daughters to work in his kitchens. He will, Samuel warned, take a tenth of your flocks, “and you shall be his slaves”. But the people are determined: all the neighboring nations have Kings, and they want one too. So Saul became King.

Samuel’s warning about the abuses of power seem prescient, and often get lost in our understandings of scripture. Samuel was right in the history of Israel, as we will read in the Hebrew scriptures over the course of this summer. He was right also in history, in our experience. Whether the petty tyranny of a manager or the use of power by those in positions of political authority, we have all seen the way power (even very little power) can go to people’s heads.

The Lord’s reminder in this is that the Lord should be King: the Lord is the one who should exercise power. I am not sure that we, like the Israelites, actually want to have the Lord as King. It can be a bit terrifying. Why that is so is evident in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel.

When our reading opens, Jesus has just healed a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, and has appointed his disciples with power to cast out demons. The crowds are uncertain, and some say that Jesus himself is possessed by demons. His response rejects that idea, but is still challenging.

Jesus denies that he is possessed, for “How can Satan cast out Satan”? In the words that Abraham Lincoln quoted in his House Divided speech in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. So Satan could not fight Satan.

Even more important than Jesus emphasis on unity, is Jesus’ comment on family. His mother, brother and sisters have come for him, concerned for his safety. Jesus asks who are his family. Then he affirms one of the more radical elements of his teaching: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The family was the basic social unit of Palestinian society. In rejecting his birth family, and creating a new family, Jesus was challenging the social order. He is also challenging us. Are we ready to think of “whoever does the will of God” as a member of our family? Episcopalians in the Diocese of San Joaquin have experienced divisions among Christians, among those who all claim to do the will of God. Can we reflect God’s love with our divisions?

Together, today’s readings ask us to think about how we see ourselves in the world. What is our relationship to structures of power? Do we open ourselves to all who do the will of God, or do we live in the cocoon of our family? Do we live in a bubble of people who largely agree with us? Do we see those who understand God differently as members of our family? I suspect that few of us are completely open to those who do God’s will. And this is perhaps a reason we are not eager to have the Lord as a King over us: an earthly King may abuse us, but will not challenge the way we live our lives as much as Jesus does.