The Kings God Warned Us About

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Second Sunday in Pentecost + June 7, 2015

Texts: 1 Sam. 8:4-20; Psalm 138; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Today I’ll be focusing on the first of our Bible readings: the story of the beginning of Israel’s line of kings. And since we’re talking about kings and kingdoms, it seems only right to start off with a “once upon a time…”story. This one’s from the Bible, but it takes place a couple of generations after our reading.

So: once upon a time, in the days of the kings of Israel, the famous Solomon died and left the throne to his son, Rehoboam. The people went to their new king, hoping for a change. “Your father made our lives hard,” they said to him. “Be easier on us. Make our burden lighter, and we will serve you gladly.” The king went to his advisors, thought on it for three days, and then gave the people his answer: “My father was tough on you? Well, I will be even tougher. He disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:1-14).

Soon after this the kingdom divides into two separate kingdoms: Israel and Judah. The kings and queens of these nations follow Rehoboam’s lead: of the 39 kings that come after Solomon, the scriptures compliment only two.[1] The rest are condemned based on these two criteria: they were not faithful to the one God, and they exploited the people.[2]

This is the exact fate described or predicted in our Bible reading, the story of the beginning of Israel’s kings. Up until this point in history, Israel had existed as a tribal culture, with people grouped together by family ties, more or less ruling themselves. But now the people say, “We want a king like the other nations have. We want someone to rule over us and to fight battles for us.” And God mourns, “They’re forsaking me yet again,” but God grants them their wish. “Fine. Have it your way. But you know what a king does, right? He will take your sons and daughters to work for him; he’ll take the best of your crops and your animals and your slaves. And you will basically be his slaves.” I don’t hear this as a punishment on Israel because they dared to ask for a human king. I hear it as a reminder of what is bound to happen – at least most of the time — when one human being has so much power over others. But the people don’t care; they want a king.

History tells us story after story of rulers who do exactly as this passage says. From Ahab and Jezebel, to those abusive lords in Bravehart, to Bashar al-Assad, we’ve seen the truth of the proverb: absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what really breaks my heart in this universal story is how often rulers claim that their power – the power they use to abuse and exploit – comes from God. So many rulers claimed they ruled by divine right, that God had given them their authority, and that to contradict the king was to contradict the will of God.

This idea of a “divine right” to rule over others had sort of a trickle-down effect. For generations and generations we have put our faith in a God-given pecking order. We have believed that some people are just naturally made to be rich and in-charge, while others are made of stupider stuff: they deserve little and need others to tell them what to do all the time, or to force them to do things.

Let me tell you another story.

Once upon a time, in the days of Columbus, on a Carribean island, there lived a young Spanish priest named Bartolomé de las Casas. But he didn’t live the life we’d expect of a priest, at least not today. He owned a plantation which was worked by slaves taken from the island’s native people. He helped to capture more slaves. He fought and killed to conquer new land. Even when a group of Dominican priests arrived on the island and denied communion to all those participating in the brutal slave system, las Casas argued that his actions as a slaveholder were just. What we would call violence and cruelty, he said were ordained by God. And many, many others agreed with him.

They said the natives were barbaric and pagan. They didn’t know the right ways to behave. It was for their own good that the colonists ruled over them. And if they refused to submit? Well, then violent force was for their own good, too. These natives must submit to the colonists, just as humans must submit to God.

This story raises a whole lot of questions. Questions about respecting other cultures, about seeing equality across differences, about the right to conquer. And I hope you’re all asking those questions. But I’m going to cut right to the obvious theological question.

The argument before us is that God’s will was for the colonists to conquer, capture, beat, kill, and enslave the natives for their own good, just as all of us humans submit to God for our own good. But is that how the Lord God rules us humans? Does God look down on us and say, “Compared to me, you humans are foolish barbarians. You have no idea how the world works. You just keep doing what is bad for you. I’ll keep you in line.” and then thwack us with a big stick to keep us from sinning?

Does God value us according to how close we come to measuring up to God? Does God make saints rich and powerful and sinners poor and weak?

No. The psalm we read today praises God for being the opposite of worldly rulers: “The Lord is high, yet cares for the lowly, perceiving the haughty from afar.” God doesn’t award social status based on how righteous we are. God sees past our social status to who we really are.

Las Casas — the priest from our story — caught on to this eventually. Or, rather, the Holy Spirit stepped in and transformed him. Just as Saul of Tarsus, the intense persecutor of Christians, became the apostle Paul, the great evangelist, Las Casas the slave-hunter became the loudest opponent of New World slavery. He argued that the native peoples were not inherently inferior to the Europeans. They, too, were created in the image of God. And furthermore, Jesus didn’t send his disciples to all nations to conquer and enslave, but to baptize and make disciples. To follow in his example of compassion and humility and sacrifice.[3]

Those colonists were not ruling like God rules. They were ruling like the kings God warned us about: by taking and taking and taking for themselves, with no regard for those they saw as inferior. By saying, “I deserve this. You don’t. Get back in your place.”[4]

“Fray Bartolomé de las Casas” (1875) by Felix Parra

So let’s go back to the Bible. To our reading, where God warns the people that a king will only bring suffering. There are lots of places in the Old Testament with this point of view. But, as I’m sure you know, there are also many promises about kings of Israel. God promises David that his descendants will reign forever. Even when Israel is conquered and all the royalty are dragged away into exile, God says, “David’s line is not dead. Israel will have a king again, and then the wicked will be punished, and the poor will be lifted up, and there will be peace and justice.” (For example, see Isaiah 11.)

It seems strange at first that our scriptures would say in one place “God thinks kings are a bad idea”, and then in another place, “God promises to send a king who will fix everything.” We could tease it out from a historical point of view, and say that the different writers had different opinions about Israel’s politics.[5] But we’re not here today for history; we’re here to figure out something new about our faith and our world. So what are we to do with this contradiction?

I think the answer is the simplest Sunday school answer. You know the joke: A pastor sits down for a children’s sermon about God’s love for the animals, and she asks the children, “Who is small and brown and furry, with a bushy tail, lives in trees, and likes to eat nuts?” and little Billy says, “JESUS!”

But really, this time I think Jesus is the answer. Because as Christians we believe that Jesus is that king God promised to send, the good king, the king who tears down all the ways that we use each other and restores things to how they should be. We say that in Jesus of Nazareth, we have a real view of how God would treat humans if God were one of us. Actually, we say more than that. We say we that in Jesus of Nazareth we have a view of how God did treat humans when God was one of us.

Jesus said the poor and the hungry and the grieving people were the blessed ones. Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus rode a young donkey, not a warhorse. Jesus hung out with uneducated fisherman and the tax collectors everyone thought were the worst of society. Jesus didn’t claim the best place on the social ladder — he said over and over that our social ladder was all wrong.

Jesus was not the kind of king God warned us about. Jesus was and is the king God promised.

Let’s tell one more story. Not from “once upon a time,” but from here, in this time. In the story of our world today, there are still the kind of rulers God warned us about. There are people still saying, “God put me here and you there, so you do what I tell you.”

We’re all characters in that story. Sometimes we’re the ones being told to get back in our place: you can’t do that, you don’t deserve that, you’re not good enough. That’s for better people. But other times, we are the ones saying those things or hearing them said to others. And sometimes those things even sound reasonable. Like in the story of Las Casas: he had to argue against a whole lot of people who used theology and philosophy and common sense to say that it was good to conquer and enslave. And I don’t think he won against those reasonable arguments.

So I encourage you to be on the lookout for that old phrase, “God put us here, and them there; we deserve this; they don’t.” in all of its sneaky forms. And when you find it, hold it up to that old, worn-out Sunday school question, “But what would Jesus do?”

[1] Knight, Douglas A. and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 412.

[2] Knight and Levine, pp. 407.

[3] Information about Las Casas and those who argued against him is from Paul Lim’s “Christianity in the Reformation Era” course, Spring 2011, at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN, and from Las Casas’s writings, “Only Method of Converting the Indians,” and “In Defense of the Indians.”

[4] I read up on early colonists’ interactions with Indians in the first pages of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

[5] Knight and Levine, 405-406.

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