Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The Prophet Samuel -- Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

At this point in the year the Lectionary offers a choice between ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament. The thematic readings are intended to fit better with the New Testament readings, while the continuous readings allow us to follow a rather longer story over a number of weeks.

In Year B the continuous readings take up the long story of the Israelites' problematic relationship with their political rulers, beginning with the celebrated 8th chapter of the first book of Samuel. Up to this point in their history, the Israelites have been guided and governed collectively by judges. But the elders now ask Samuel to find them a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’. He warns them about the dangers of kingship, and the consuming vanity that is likely to fill someone holding a monopoly on power. But they persist, since above all they want victories over their enemies. Reluctantly, Samuel concedes, and in this way the stage is set for a long and turbulent saga. The reigns of Saul, David, Solomon and many of their successors begin in hope but always end in disaster until, by the time of Jesus, the Israelites have long been a people subject to imperial powers.

The lectionary passage leaves out the verses in which the Israelites' demand for a King is interpreted as a rejection of God. Yet this conflict between divine and human sources of hope lies at the heart of the whole story, and it provides the background against which Jesus’ messiahship has to be understood. Jesus emphatically rejects ‘the nation’ as a focus of hope and salvation. 
Jesus in the Portico of Solomon -- James Tissot
But the Gospel passage implies a still more radical claim -- that faith in God requires us to reject not only political loyalties, but family loyalties also. Jesus seems to show a startling heartlessness in disowning his ‘mother and brothers’, leaving them to stand outside, though Mark's version is not as harsh as Luke's, in which true disciples are told to 'hate' their father and motherEven allowing for the exaggeration typical of middle eastern rhetoric, this is unquestionably one of the hardest of the 'hard sayings of Jesus', and very difficult to interpret. The core message, though is this. God demands, and requires, and rewards, a devotion far deeper than any human being – king or parent -- can properly ask or warrant.

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