Call it fate, karma, dumb luck of divine humor, I find it interesting that our reading from 1 Samuel turns up in the lectionary in an election year. It’s especially funny because of the way God is unblinkingly honest about his views on kings, and how they feel so familiar when talking about politicians.
Now, just to set the stage; until this point, Israel had not had a king. From the time they left their bondage in Egypt (led by Moses) they were a theocracy—God was their King. And at Mt. Sinai, when they received the 10 Commandments, it was then that they took on the identity of being God’s People. In fact one translation of the name Israel is “God reigns.”
So, not only was God identified as the Ruler and King of Israel; Israel’s identity was that of being a nation ruled by God. In fact, it was a covenant relationship.
What Israel had as leaders, then were prophets like Moses, Aaron and Miriam. They also had judges like Gideon, Deborah and Samuel, who acts as a prophet and judge as well as maintaining a role as priest. It was a system that from the beginning was not designed to have a king, and this is why there is so much surprise in today’s reading.
The people came to Samuel and demanded a king—after all, the other nations had kings, why shouldn’t they have one as well (a perfectly articulated reason, really).
Having no idea what to say, or how to respond, Samuel has a chat with God about the situation. God very nicely explains that the people aren’t rejecting Samuel, they’re rejecting God as their King. God then sends Samuel back to the people with his true feelings about kings.
God basically says, kings take your land, they take your livestock, they take your children for wars and to build machines for wars, and then they tax you, and a whole host of other nasty things. Some things apparently never…
But even after hearing all of this, the people say, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s about what the other nations have, so that’s what we want as well…” Of course they get what they ask for. And while the monarchy isn’t all bad at first, by the end, Israel had been split into two kingdoms with separate kings—and this of course before they were completely dispossessed of the land altogether. Hence God’s initial skepticism. All the same God was able to use the monarchy to build the lineage that led to the birth of Jesus (so that’s pretty good).
The problem here, however, was not only that the people were rejecting God as their King—in fact, I don’t think that was their motive at all. I suppose they didn’t realize all that they were asking.
But the real problem was that in demanding a king, they also gave away their identity. That covenantal identity of being God’s chosen people who are ruled by God…
Unfortunately they had become seduced by the illusion that having a human monarchy was the basis for power, and had totally forgotten that no human king could stand in the place of a Divine King.
There is something like this in our Gospel reading as well—this idea of identity. Here in Mark’s gospel we have Jesus in some unnamed house—maybe Simon Peter’s according to where we’re told Jesus was travelling.
Jesus at this point had recently spent time in the wilderness after his baptism, and right away he’s casting out demons and doing works of power. When the scribes see this, they begin wondering what in the world is going on. And try as they might, they can’t disprove his works. So, in a moment of disgust, they begin saying that he’s of the Devil.
Hearing this, Jesus puts them in their place with the parable about binding the strong man and plundering his house: literally, Jesus was saying that he was binding Satan and plundering his domain. His point: How can a house divided stand? And obviously he was not working on the side of evil.
This is also where we get that really sticky statement about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. What Jesus means is that even when they can see and know better that what he was doing was the work of God—they denied it and called it the work of evil. This, Jesus says, is inexcusable.
But here again, we see this issue of identity, only this time we see that the people forget who Jesus is as the Christ. This is why he not only explains who he is by his works, he also helps them to understand who they are as his family because of their faith. He reminds them of this fact that they’re identity (just like in the reading from 1 Samuel), their identity is realized because of their relationship to him.
Now perhaps we could blame it on Modernity, or even Post-Modernity, but we self-identify and self-select ourselves into any number of sub-categories. Beyond Episcopal priest, I’m also straight, white, and married with young children. And for each of these labels, you get some aspect of who I am—these things give some insight to what makes me who I am. But they’re limited, and largely external. Each one of them for their meanings, are subject to interpretation and perspectives. That said, while these things give shape to my identity, they do not define it—they’re not necessarily guiding principles for me being me.
But like Israel, and those earliest followers of Jesus, we’re asked to be identified by our relationship to God in Jesus Christ. Of course, we know that simply identifying ourselves as Christians is a pretty loaded thing. But, identity is not only what we say we are, it’s what guides us, shapes us and makes us who we truly are.
Understanding this, however can be difficult work. After all there are so many things about us that we want to have define us: perhaps being a really good golfer, or a stamp collector. Then there are all of those things that others project upon us that can confuse how we present ourselves.
But whatever and whoever we believe we are is nothing outside of who we are as God’s own. All that we truly are, after all, flows from our relationship with God as Children of God. And while it isn’t as terrible as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I do think that missing our true identity in Christ does at least grieve the Holy Spirit. Because becoming who we truly are in Christ, and understanding our identity as Children of God is holy work. It’s the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in our lives—the work that makes us and all of Creation whole. After that, the rest falls into proper place.