How the World’s Relational-Economy Turns us into Opportunistic Sycophants and What to do about it

 

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Leaning Into the Future

Future telling is one of the greatest skills that we value. To know the future of the stock market, future lottery number winners, future sports scores leads to money and power. Nate Silver became famous not only for his accurate predictions of sporting events but also the 2008 election.

Future telling is so valuable because of our anxiety about the future. As insecure, fragile and dependent creatures we are always nervous about what the future will bring. Will we have enough money for retirement? Will out health hold out? Will the kids be OK? Will I eat or have shelter tomorrow?

Knowing the future, or at least having a hunch about it offers us the possibility of gaming the future. If you know Hillary will win maybe you decide to huddle up with the Democrats. If you think Apple phone will start exploding like the Samsung Note maybe you sell their stock. If we can know the future we imagine it wise to accommodate our hearts and our lives to it in order that we might be on “the winning side of history”.

Our Mental Picture of the World

Last week we pondered a bit what “normal” life looks like in this world. We looked at the fact that even though as a culture we like to project that “normal” is happy, safe and secure the truth is far more complicated and often more dark.

The Bible’s picture of the world, in fact, is often more dark than our own. Many might look at this and say “well you know the Bible was written a long time ago before we had science and technology and civilized culture that can offer us the haven we now all enjoy.”

Again, most of us if we have to be honest will testify that life isn’t always or even often such a haven, and a quick perusal of our most popular TV and movies show that in fact we are quite pessimistic about our future. We are concerned our technology has unintended consequences, but most of all we are concerned about whether humanity actually has the wisdom and the political ability to manage these things. We have at the heart of our society a deep pessimism about what people actually do when they have great power over others. The Bible shares this perspective.

David and Saul, who we’ve been following lived in a context far more violent and uncertain than our own. The focus of the story is not so much on the technology or lack of it, but rather on the relational breakdown and propensity to evil that seems endemic in the story and endemic in our world.

We’ve been watching the self-destruction of Saul, and now at the end of the book of 1 Samuel Saul will take his own life as he sees everything being taken from him. David has been spared from any involvement in this by God through the suspicions of the Philistine kings. David has been tested by loss, by fear, by threat and by all kinds of misfortune that few of us will experience. His trials are, in some ways really just beginning.

Kingship

Central to the concern of the Book of Samuel , in contrast to the book of Judges is the question of the monarchy in Israel. If our main struggles are not so much what we can do but what we actually do when we have power some of our chief struggles with technology do not concern steel or nuclear weapons but the politics surrounding them.

The elders of Israel facing the ongoing threat of Philistine raiding asserted that they needed a new technology to secure their future. Everyone else seemed to have a king, just like as we said last week “everyone else has enough money, food to eat, healthy and fulfilling relationships and kids that are doing well”, we need a king too! A king was supposed to deliver Israel from the scourge of the Philistines after the debacle at Shiloh. Tall, pious, good looking Saul was the answer to their problems. Now we find Saul, his sons dead, taking his own life on Mt. Gilboa in chapter 31.

If the children of Israel looked to other gods for deliverance in the book of Judges they looked to the political technology of others for deliverance in the book of Samuel.

We find, however, that our obsession with technology is a reflection of our insecurity and anxiety to secure our own futures. God seems often rather indifferent to our lust for power and therefore not obsessed with technology as we are. Readers of the Bible will of course know that God will be able to use the monarchy just like he was able to use the chieftain system of the period of the Judges. The point wasn’t the technology, the point was the relationship with God. The wood and stone idols of Judges could be replaced by the political-technology-idol of monarchy. Both were the same in terms of their determined attempt to make life apart, and in rebellion against the maker and master of creation. The suicide of Saul before the conquering armies of the Philistine kings is a statement of kingship.

How Kingship Works

Kingship is of course not simply the action of kings, but a way kingship shapes us. Very very few people actually become kings or presidents or great rulers, but what kingship actually is is a set of relationships that organize groups of people. Kingship will shape everyone’s relationships and therefore shape us. Because Nate Silver, and many others now believe Hillary Clinton will be president the entire conversation around both she and Donald Trump changes. People will treat them differently.

David is of course miles away from the action on Mt. Gilboa dealing with the Amalekite raid at Ziklag when Saul takes his life. After David returns home a messenger finds him to bring him some news. David is in this story, however, because we are led to believe by Samuel that David WILL be king, so we are shaped by that belief in the future.

Amalekites

It would be worthwhile to pause to consider the Amalekites in this story. We know very little about them outside of the Bible. They are associated with the family of Esau but the group seems to be perpetual enemies of Israel. In the time of Saul and David they are raiders that seem to be the consummate opportunists.

We first meet them when Israel is weary from her escape from Egypt. Seeing Israel in her weakened state they attack. Yhwh delivers Israel and curses the Amalekites. Saul’s destruction of them is ordered by God but that leads to the incident with king Agag and Samuel in 1 Samuel 15 setting up the anointing of David in chapter 16. We will find a late appearance of them in the book of Esther where Haman, the Agagite (descendant of King Agag) as enemy and destroyer of Israel. Amalekites seem to operate as perpetual adversaries of Israel.

Out of the disaster of Mt. Gilboa an Amalekite finds David telling tales and bearing gifts. The assumption of the Amalekite is that David, soon to be king of Judah and possibly all of Israel will know the rules by which the game of kingship is played. The rules are quite easy. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This Amalekite tells David that he found Saul nearly gone, and so dispatched him himself, taking the crown and Saul’s armband bringing it to David hoping for at least a reward and maybe a position in David’s new administration.

What Makes a King? 

Throughout the story of David we have been challenged again and again to ponder what makes for life in this world. Is it moralism, earning favor with God? Is it piety, forcing God to own up to the allegiance we offer to God? Again and again we have seen that God alone raises up and brings down, by his own degree, according to his own choosing.

Before the debacle of Shiloh was the story of barren Hannah and her song. The authors of the book want us to know the point of the story even before they tell us. God, who reigns on high raises up and casts down. We are not kings and lords of the earth who self-authorize or self-legitimate.

Saul’s crown and armband mean nothing. Crowns and insignia do not make kings, but God alone.

David asks the opportunistic Amalekite why he did not fear to strike the Lord’s anointed? The answer is obvious. Because he does not fear the Lord.

David has been through this before. Remember chapters 23-25. David understands something about kingship. All earthly kings are under-shepherds.  All under-shepherds answer to the master of heaven and earth.

David then orders the Amalekite killed. Why?

David, as anointed king of Israel is dispatching God’s judgment to the ways of worldly monarchy and he wants his men to know it. David is teaching his men, as he taught them in chapters 23 and 25 that he as king will not live by the world’s rules. They will be different. Kingship in God’s kingdom is not something that is a human commodity that we possess by power or cunning or bloodshed.

David Laments Saul, Relativizing our Politics

David then leads his men in a lament for the one who would kill him. Saul hunted David to the point that David had to flee Israel and betray nearly everything to survive. Like the Amalekite we expect David to praise God for the death of Saul, instead David laments.

David’s lament relativizes cheap politics, the kind of politics that the Amalekite assumed. The king of politics that imagines that all power is simply a pretense to dupe the foolish and win their allegiance.

This is an easy politics to fall prey to, because it is the politics of this world. We call our leaders “public servants” but remember that some adopt the pretense and instead fleece the sheep. There are many chapters of the Bible recognizing “bad shepherds” who use power and authority for their own ends rather than the Lord’s. Read Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34.

Politics is not a game we play to make our wills be done on earth. Politics is intended to reflect the will of the true owner of the world. This makes David not Saul’s enemy but the enemy of how Saul fell short. There is a trust in God’s providence even when God’s anointed has made a mess of things. David can honor the office even if the office bearer is not always honorable. David can honor the man even when the man was critically fallen. He can honor God even when God seems to now know what he’s doing in David’s estimation.

David’s Redeemed Kingship

What we see is that in this process God through David redeems the kingship that the elders grabbed with idolatrous zeal. It is not kingship that saves, but God alone, and he can use kingship.

Misery: How Kingship can make the world crass, opportunistic and tribal

The Amalekite reveals our nature to us. Donald Trump likes to brag about his sexual conquests. He notes that his money and celebrity are what affords his behavior.

In the 90s we talked about “Friends of Bill” and I suppose we’ll now talk about “Friends of Hillary”. To be the friend of the wealthy and powerful offers security and opportunity in this world. Part of Hillary’s personal guardedness reveals the darker side though. Do people really care for Hillary or do they just want to be her friend because of what they can get out of her and the relationship?

The world is arranged toward the future bent around these polls of power. Because we are hungry, insecure, anxious creatures we have shaped societies around sycophancy. For all our pretense about individualism, self-pride and self-importance, just introduce a wealthy, powerful or beautiful person into a social fabric and watch the relationships align according to the magnetisms.

Deliverance: Jesus and Kingship

One of the strangest things about Jesus is who he said he was (Son of God and Son of Man) and how he related to the corrupt earthly authorities of the world of 1st century Judea and Galilee.

The strange dance begins with Satan invited Jesus to bow before him to receive the kingdoms of the earth. Jesus refuses. He won’t bow to Satan in order to secure what we all imagine Jesus needs. Jesus is not the Amalekite clutching the crown of Saul as a bargaining chip.

Jesus lives in a world run by Caesar, Herod and Pontius Pilate.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries have figured out that things go better if they cooperate with these powers. Jesus’ regard towards them is not opportunistic nor instrumental.

Others very much wanted Jesus to participate in their culture war to either religiously marginalize the pagan powers or openly revolt against them. Jesus also frustrated this agenda. Jesus said things about paying taxes that puzzled his critics. Jesus meets with Pilate and changes the power dynamics of the meeting in ways that simply make us ponder how the kingdom relates to these earthly claims to power. Jesus did not de-legitimize Pilate but he relativized him. Pilate’s corrupt administration even in its corruption would be a tool for God’s redemptive plan in a way that neither Pilate, nor Jesus’ inner circle could fathom.

Pilate’s interview with Jesus quickly went to kingship. Everyone knew Caesar was king. Anyone else claiming to be king was a supposed rival to Caesar. The Roman world organized itself either by sucking up to Caesar in order to secure wealth, welfare and a future or resisting Caesar hoping for a shot at such things by being or befriending a rival king. Jesus makes clear to Pilate that his kingship is not FROM this world. If it were his servants would rise up and rescue him. Read John 19.

When Pilate condemns Jesus he fashions a sign attached to the cross. It was in three languages “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. The nationalistic authorities were offended by the sign but Pilate knew what he was doing. By naming Jesus as reinforced the status of the Jewish people as conquered vassals to Caesar. At the same time he mocked both Jesus and the leadership while in an ironic way recognizing Jesus as king.

The Christian faith believes that in this moment of deepest irony the way of the world is condemned and exposed as a sham and the God of creation revealed as just in his condemnation of it and loving in his deliverance of us.

Gratitude: A Considered Indifference to Gaming Outcomes and Trust in God’s Kingship

What is revealed in David here is the shape of true human kingship. David does not enter into the relational economy of the Amalekite, though as we’ve seen in his history with Achish he is hardly clean. David will finally respect the fact that Yhwh is the true king of Israel and the king of all the earth. As Hannah sang it is the Lord who raises up and takes down, it is not an opportunistic scavenger looking for a chance. David will lament for Saul and pre-figure Jesus’ indifference towards the relational polarities of this world, instead holding to the only relational polarity that matters, one’s relationship to the true king of the world.

What this does is change David into someone more like his descendant Jesus in some powerful and attractive ways.

  • Less anxious: David is less anxious, and therefore vulnerable to the lures of the powerful who would use him for their own purposes.
  • More loving: David is able to connect in a healthy way both with people of power and people without because he isn’t always involved in the human-using-economy.

How does this change how you live in your relational/political economy? 

  • How are you pulled into the magnetism of power, money or attraction?
  • Do you sell yourself in a futile, perpetual attempt to obtain security and prosperity?
  • Have you become a modern Amalekite?

Would you like to be less anxious? More able to love people whether they can do something for you or not?

 

Begin to look to one who is outside our economy, in a kingdom not FROM this world but TO it.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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