When he was in his early twenties, the author Rene Girard fell in love. After a short and intense courtship period, he settled into a stable relationship with his girlfriend. Eventually, however, the relationship grew stale, and it wasn’t long before he ended it. She accepted it, went her own way, and began dating other men. Then suddenly, he was drawn to her again. Curious about his change of heart, he began to ask himself why. He noticed that whenever he saw her out with another man, the two of them having fun together, he found himself reattracted to her. It wasn’t because he suddenly saw some new quality in her he hadn’t seen before. Rather, it was because others found her attractive. Once the object of his desire, she was now the model of his desire. That is to say, she was modeling to him what he should want.
We see instances of this all the time. We want what others have, not necessarily because it is desirable to us, but because others find it desirable. It must be worth having if others want it.
The people of Israel were set apart from the other nations. Of all the peoples on the face of the earth, God chose Israel to be a special people for himself. The theme of God’s passionate love for his people runs like a bright red thread through the whole Bible. God refers to them as his “prized possession;” his “special treasure;” and the “apple of his eye,” among other tender phrases. He cares for them and leads them like a shepherd. He hears their cries of distress and saves them. He is moved with compassion when their enemies oppress them. He has pain in his heart when they are unfaithful to him.
But at this juncture in their history the people do want to be set apart from the other nations. They want to be like the other nations. For a long time now, the judges have ruled them. Judges were temporary leaders raised up by God to help them when their enemies became too strong for them. After they subdued their enemies, the judges returned to whatever they did before the threat. For example, after his victorious campaign against the Midianites, Gideon refused the people’s request to be their king. “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). But now the people want a king to rule over them, like the other nations. They want a king to fight their battles.
We may acknowledge Rene Girard’s observation about desire, but still ask the question: Is not the desire to have a king to fight their battles a legitimate one? The desire to be safe, to be protected, to be cared for—this is a good and reasonable desire. The desire for security is natural to us. But it is a problem when it is misdirected. This is what Samuel sees. He is indignant at the request of the elders for a king. He sees it as a rejection of his leadership, and, by extension, the institution of the judge. Of course, they give good reasons. Samuel is old, and before long he will pass from the scene. And his sons are not fit to succeed him. In fact, they are corrupt. But when Samuel goes to God with their request, he gains a larger perspective. What the people are asking for does not amount to a rejection of Samuel, but a rejection of God.
We have to pause here to consider the gravity of this moment. We have already mentioned that Israel is a special people, chosen by God, meant to fulfill a very great destiny in the world. But that always proved hard for them to remember. They were always forgetting who they were, who God called them to be.
This is a perennial problem for God’s people, even up to the present day. It’s so easy to cave in to the pressures around us. We want to be liked; we want to be accepted. And we think that this means to be like those around us. “We want to have a king over us, so that we may be like the other nations.” That is what we feel too. And if people point out to us our inconsistency, we say that in this world one has to be practical. “You have to go along to get along,” as the saying goes. But we don’t always realize what we are giving up. Worse yet, we seldom know what we’re getting in exchange. We don’t see how it will harm us in the long run.
This is what Samuel has to tell the people. God sends him to warn them. God will not force his people to do what is right. He respects their freedom. What he can do is to make them aware of the consequences of their actions. This is good parenting. Parents know it is futile to try to control their children. It only makes them more defiant. The best they can do is to explain to them where their choices are likely to lead them.
The people want what the other nations want. But they do not pause to ask themselves whether what they want is desirable in itself. The message God gives Samuel to bring back to them is that it really isn’t. The king will take far more than he will give. A cost benefit analysis would have revealed this to be the case. The king will take their sons to be his charioteers and horsemen, platoon commanders, farm laborers, and weapons manufacturers. The king will want their daughters for perfume makers, cooks and bakers. And the king will seize their finest fields, vineyards, and olive groves. And if he doesn’t, he will still tax their yield. The king’s officers and servants have to eat, so they’ll have to tithe their grain and grapes and olives to feed them. The king will even want to use their servants and livestock for his own household.
The folly of the people is that they prefer the king who takes to the God who gives. What the king demands were God’s gifts to Israel. God freed Israel and made her people rich. But the king will enslave them again and make them poor. The irony is that the elders were seeking justice that Samuel’s sons could not give. What they will get instead is an abuse of power, from which God rescued them in the past and can rescue them in the present.
Thus God tells Samuel: Give them what they want, but warn them that it will not make their life better. The scene reminds me of the astute observation that St. Augustine made about people: “They want to be happy even though they live a life that will not make them so.” (De civitate Dei, XIV,4). This statement points up the contradiction between our desire for happiness and our choices, whether conscious or not. Pascal illustrates this contradiction by posing the following questions: “If human beings are not made for God, why is it that they attain happiness only in God? And if they are made for God, why do they show themselves so opposed to God?”
The day will come when the people of Israel realize the folly of showing themselves to be so opposed to God. Then they will turn to God and cry out to him. Only he will not answer them in that day. We may wonder why God will be so hard hearted. Haven’t we already claimed that God is a good parent to Israel? God knows that sometimes the only way to get through to a stubborn people is to let them suffer the consequences of their actions. Only then will they come to their senses and repent and come back to God with all their hearts.
Is Israel that stubborn? Let us hear again how they responded to Samuel’s warning. “No! We want a king over us. Then we will be like the other nations with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” If Samuel’s words never fell to the ground, as we read earlier in 1 Samuel (3:19), then surely they should have been received here. But Israel will not hear the voice of wisdom, which could have saved them from their folly. Samuel is to listen to their voice while they refused to listen to his.
Let us return to the point about desire we made earlier. Israel’s desire to be “like the nations” raises the question about our own conformity. How much are we shaped by the desire to be like those around us? Do we as the people of God set ourselves apart from the culture around us, or do we merely slavishly imitate it? Do we challenge the prevailing norms and habits and customs, or do we simply conform to them?
In our gospel lesson we see how Jesus responded. The people thought he should conform to the expectations of his mother and brothers and sisters, who thought his commitment to the kingdom of God was too extreme. In fact, they thought he was going out of his mind. Maybe that’s how Jesus’ followers appear to those outside his circle, both then and now. But Jesus does not conform to their expectations; he expects them to conform to his. Who are his mother and brother and sisters? Those who do the will of God.
In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul says: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” Author and preacher Stan Mast notes that that’s easy to affirm, but the power of culture is immense. When everyone around us is living a certain way, how can we resist being swept into the flood? The values of the kingdom of God and those of the culture are different. Sometimes they diverge sharply. How do we live by the values of love, kindness, peace, compassion, and devotion to Christ while rejecting the values of power, wealth and the pursuit of sensual pleasure?
In conclusion, we see that the die is cast. Samuel and the elders go up to Gilgal to anoint Saul as king. If we did not know how this story ends, we may fear for the very existence of the people of Israel. Even though Saul will go out and fight their battles, he will not prove to be a good leader. Did God then give his people up? No. The people reject God as king, but God can never ultimately reject his people, to whom he remains bound in covenant faithfulness. God will work out his plan despite the poor choice they have made. We will see that after Saul disqualified himself for leading God’s people as their king, God will direct Samuel to a boy named David, whom he will anoint as king. And God will promise to establish David’s throne forever, a promise that he will fulfill through David’s greater son, Jesus Christ.
This should give us comfort on multiple levels. Our poor choice may have committed us to a path of folly. We wish that we could go back to those critical junctures in our histories where that choice first presented itself. If we could, we would choose otherwise. Instead of the path of folly we would choose the path of wisdom. But obviously we can’t. But that is not the end. Just as God worked through the poor choice of his people Israel, bringing good out of it, so also he will work through the poor choices we have made, bringing good out of them. Only let us no longer continue down the path of folly. Let us commit or recommit our path to God today, trusting in him to make it straight. Amen.