Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jesus the Strongman: A Homily for the Third Sunday After Pentecost

We are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam 8.19-20)

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, June 9, 2024, the Third Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings for this Sunday (Proper 10 Year B):  1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15); Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

It’s an unsettled time, full of insecurity and fear.  The old ways of doing things don’t seem to work any more.  The leaders are distrusted, and few people have much faith in religion or even in God.   Instead the people want a strongman to rule them, someone who will crush their enemies and make them feel good about themselves.

I won’t blame you if thought I was talking about today’s headlines, but really this is a a description of where we come in to our first lesson today, from the First Book of Samuel.   Since Sharon talked about the call of the boy Samuel in her homily last Sunday, I thought I’d pick up the story from where she left off.   You’d think the story about the adorable little Samuel in his pyjamas, twice going to Eli and saying “did you call me?”, would have a happy ending, but not so much.

So to recap the story (and just to prove that the Hebrew scriptures are chiock full of good stories), Samuel was called by God because the priest Eli’s sons were absolute rotters, corrupt and abusive.   At the time, Israel is at war with the Philistines, and the war isn’t going that well because the Israelites have started worshipping the gods of neighbouring countries.   

There’s a big battle, and the sons of Eli take the Ark of the Covenant to the battle as a sign of God’s presence and protection.  But, God is angry with Israel’s faithlessness, so God lets the Philistines win, the sons of Eli are killed, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured.   Eli dies of shame when he hears the news, thus fulfilling God’s prophecy that his house and line will end. The Philistines take the Ark home but they suffer terribly because they never watched the Indiana Jones movie, so they send it back.   

By this time Samuel is the chief priest of Israel.  He calls his people to repent, they get rid of their false godsend God helps them to defeat the Philistines.   So you’re thinking, that must be the real happy ending, right?  Well, no, this film isn’t over, because as someone once said, history may not repeat but it does rhyme.  Turns out the sons of Samuel are also rotters, and the people don’t want another priest.  Instead they ask Samuel to find them a king, so they can be like other nations.

So this is point where things really go off the rails. Since Joshua took over from Moses and led the people of God across the Jordan, Israel had never had a king.   Instead they had judges, men and women who mostly acted as a priest and prophet.  The judges had a connection to God who was the true founder and king of Israel.  As God tells Samuel, the people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8.7).   So, God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, with a few caveats.

I read recently about politics that the people who help put  strongmen in power think that they can control the strongmen, when in fact the strongman only looks after himself.   This is exactly what God warns the people will happen to them.   A king will take their wealth.  He will take their daughters as servants, and their sons as soldiers to fight his wars.   A king will be cruel and domineering, like Pharaoh.  It’s a sobering thought that Pharaoh’s soldiers who drowned when God parted the Red Sea were the sons of ordinary people, and Samuel is saying to his people that their sons may likewise never come home.

At this point in the larger story of Samuel we start to notice a trend that may seem discouraging, namely that over and over again, humans pull away from God and go their own way.   Eli was replaced as a priest because his sons were scoundrels.   Samuel was a faithful priest but his sons were scoundrels and no one wanted them.  God wanted the people of Israel to be unique among the nations, but they asked for a king so they could be like other nations.  

And just as good priests are followed by bad ones, so it goes with kings.   Some, like David and Solomon are good, well, mostly, but others are scoundrels and so, by the time we think that First Samuel was written, the kings are gone and the Israelites are slaves in Babylon and the story is back where it started in Egypt.  But that’s not the end of the story, because through all this, God remains faithful.

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, he says of the son she will have that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk 1.32).  But in all his time on earth, Jesus doesn’t want like any earthly king.   Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples not to want power and honour as they understand it.   He tells them “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you” (Mt 20.26-28).   

What Jesus is saying here is a complete reversal of what the people told Samuel.  They wanted a powerful king to be like other nations.  Jesus is calling God’s people back to the role that was always intended for them, to be a unique people who will be a blessing for the world.  The kings that Samuel warns of will always want to be served.  Jesus will be a king that serves others.  As he says in Matthew’s gospel, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).

Now don’t get Jesus wrong, his talk about serving others doesn’t mean that he is some milquetoast hero.  Jesus comes to smack down evil.    The first miracle that Jesus performs in Mark’s gospel is to free a man of an unclean spirit, a demon, and the witnesses recognize this as an act of power and authority (exousia) (Mk 1.27).  So in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ authority is never questioned by his religious opponents.  Rather, they suggest that Jesus is somehow demonic himself - “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk 3.23).

Let’s pay attention to the parable by which Jesus rebuts this accusation:  “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man” (Mk 3.27).   So the strong man in the parable would be Beelzebul, the prince of devils (whose name, by the way, means “Lord of the Flies / Dung Heap”).   The strong man’s house is the world that is captive to sin and evil.  The strong man’s plundered property are those who are held captive by sin evil, as seen in those in the gospels whom Jesus frees from evil spirits.  And the thief who can bind the strong man must be even stronger, and the thief is clearly Jesus.

So in a surprising conclusion to this homily, the strong man that we long for is not some earthly king or leader who will defeat our enemies and make us great, but rather, the strong man is Jesus, the King of Heaven and Earth, who will set free us from the evil, free us from the evil of the world and from ourselves.  The strong king that the people asked Samuel for could never come from among them.  That king could only come from God, but he would be no king they could even recognize, because his crown would be thorns, his throne a cross, and his sword would be love.  But his power over evil is very real.

We need Jesus our king because now is just as uncertain a time as it was in Samuel’s day.  It’s still an unsettled time, full of insecurity, and full of fear.  Social media has filled many people with outrage and grievance, and it’s made our politics vicious, so that we’re less likely to compromise and to find solutions to complicated issues.  Half the world seems to be run by dictators, and the other half is losing faith in democracy.   So now, as in Samuel’s day, many want strongmen to rule over them and to crush their enemies

I didn’t mean for this to be a political homily.   As followers of Jesus, I would say that our politics should resemble our Sunday prayers of the people in that they should want what is best for our communities and for the wider world.   I would also that whatever our politics, whatever our insecurities, we should never give in to the desire for a strongman, because we have Jesus and because we live in his kingdom.

Jesus is our strongman and king, but he’s a curious kind of strongman because in return for conquering our enemies, sin and death, he only asks three things of us:  to repent, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.   If we can obey him in these three things, then we might well find our way to a politics that offers community, dignity, and security for all.


Thursday, June 6, 2024

Ben Crosby on the Perils of Functionalist Theology

The Symbol of God Functions? by Ben Crosby

How attention to the practical function of Christian belief helps and hinders contemporary theology

Read on Substack

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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