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Our readings for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost are, for both tracks, a portion of Mark 3—the confrontation between Jesus and certain scribes come down from Jerusalem—the continuous Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 4, a portion from 1 Samuel paired with Psalm 138, and for the complementary Track 2 a text from Genesis with Psalm 130 chosen to emphasize the satanic character of the confrontation with Jesus we read in the Gospel.
Let me start by offering a brief summary of the contents of 1 Samuel, the focus of Track One, that is, those portions left out between the Sunday selections, the call of Samuel in chapter 3 and today’s reading about the anointing of the ill-fated Saul in chapter 8. This will help us fill in the blanks and better understand the portions from 1 Samuel Track One is providing according to its “let the OT have its own voice” plot. I can recall, parenthetically, doing a major Track One type walk through the OT and NT organized in a teaching volume called The Story. For my part, I found catching people up on what got left out far more interesting, and why what was chosen, chosen.
What the overall narrative line makes clear is this: Samuel preserves Israel during his faithful tenure. He is a prophet who assures that assaults from enemies do not overwhelm God’s people. His leadership is sound and reliable. The threats are real and sustained, but God uses Samuel to best purpose.
When he becomes old, in time, the people fear the future without him. Their request, however, for a King is not favorable to God; fear is handled by God in his sovereign ways. When grounded as well, “to be like the nations” – that is exactly not what Israel is to be. She is to be a light to the nations. Different. Holy. In relationship with a Saving Lord on their behalf. God tells Samuel to warn the people about their request and he does. They ignore him and double down. God clarifies it is a rejection of him as King, as Lord of a different idea of nationality and kingship, and not a rejection of Samuel.
In chapters preceding this Samuel is sent to anoint Saul as nagid. Ruler. God has heard the cries of Israel for help. We hear in this nagid a concession to a request but on different terms as a King “so as to be like the nations.”
The people react to this, however, as consistent with their cry for a King. Samuel warns them. Strict obedience is the name of this game they have demanded they will play. We watch as Saul is strictly obedient vis-a-vis his son Jonathon but not in respect of Samuel. And so this Kingship suffers the fate appropriate to it and those who requested it. God rejects Saul under the conditions of Kingship as strict obedience to him, in spite of Saul’s stature, good looks, and obvious success as a nagid in battle. It is hard not to view him as caught up in the vortex of wrongly grounded requests and a high bar for compliance. One usual way of handling the complexity of the narrative unfolding is to assign the bits in tension to sources or different authors. But this only defers the interpretation of the text as it presently stands. I think it is better practice to assume the tensions have been left there precisely to convey the complexity. You want a King, you will have one, but things wrongly predicated run their course in strict ways and not generous ones.
I mentioned last week the way the Gospel of Mark transitioned from chapter one’s depiction of Jesus confronting spiritual forces of satan to his confrontation with the religious leaders who challenge his fellowship with tax collectors and his conduct on the Sabbath.
Today the two realms merge. The religious leaders seek to claim that Jesus is himself a challenge to them because he is at work for satan. Going out of one’s mind is often a charge of demonic possession. His very success in healing and carving out inroads in the territory of Satan – so much so that he can barely stop for food – ironically occasions their charge of possession. Jesus makes two responses, the first long and the second a summary statement the actual fact of the matter. To bind up the strong man is to attack the realm of satan at its source, so as to plunder and destroy his house—his earthly domain of death and bondage. That is the reality of what he is up to.
The longer introduction to this succinct point consists of his rebuttal of the leaders’ charge that he is operating at Satan’s behest. That is nonsensical on its face, Jesus replies. Why would Satan dispatch Jesus to defeat his earthly authority. The charge they level is an admission that Jesus has been successful. He drives out demons. Even they get that much. Silencing them has not prevented their being recognized as driven out at his command. Satan would be divided against himself if he allowed such an activity and was the motive force behind it. No, Jesus is plundering the house of the strong man, and anyone who claims he is acting demonically shows themselves to be themselves on Satan’s side as such. The unpardonable sin is to see Jesus acting to defeat sin and death and bondage and attribute that to the Devil.
The strong rebuke to his mothers and brothers and cousins must be heard in this even stronger context. They seek to restrain him. That is wrong. He must be about his Father’s business, as Luke’s milder version of his push-back goes. It is the people who have wondered about his mental state, and they act on that basis. Presumably out of concern.
As our reading ends they appear as those calling for him to come aside. He refuses and it is to those gathered that he directs his words. You are brothers and sisters and family. In the work I am given to undertake, such will be the charges made about me, and the challenges I must defeat. So it goes. Follow me. Do not try solace or concern, well-motivated though that might be on a human plane or in human families. To be in my family is to allow me to do my Father’s work, who is Your Father.
The rejection of Samuel is a rejection of God himself. A request to have things as seems best to us on the earthly plane—let us have a king like other nations—is a rejection of God’s kingdom and the King he has in view, whose coming is in his timing and purpose. Jesus’ kingdom brings confrontation from those who cannot see how God is working in him to bring about healing and the defeat of all hostile forces. Yet he is creating through this his special family.
The Genesis reading shows us just how deeply the assault on God’s good creation rends the peace he intended. Fear has entered the stage, fear like that of the people requesting a king. Dissembling and accusation. Satan strikes the head of all humanity. It will take the offspring of Eve to strike back in victory, even a victory over death and enmity. And along the way it will be the forgiveness and forbearance of God with his people which demonstrates his love so strong it teaches us fear and reverence. So Psalm 130. The Psalm chosen to come alongside 1 Samuel 8 reminds us that whatever King God does come in time to bring will only be King in praise and in obedience before God’s Kingship, unlike the ways of nations, who must find their own praise before the Lord. This is the safe refuge from enemies the people cry out for, and only this, as Samuel has taught them.
Or in the words of today’s Epistle.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.