The Vocation of Government — 23 July 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
23 July 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

The Vocation of Government

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1 Samuel 8:1, 4-18
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.”

Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots, and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves and the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

In 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right all or most of the time. By 2019, only 17% of Americans felt this way. This strikes me as oddly bi-partisan. In the ELCA’s “Social Message on Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy,” which was adopted in June 2020, the message notes that Americans feel the government is “distant and oppressive,” “increasingly controlled by a small minority of elites,” and “unjust in who benefits and who pays.” In our civic conversation,some endorse the government and its policies to the point of idolatry while others reject out of hand the good that government can provide. Lutherans believe the civil government is a gift from God, called to “protect and coordinate the well-being of individuals, communities, and creation.” And we, too, are called not to abdicate responsibility of our neighbor’s, community’s, and creation’s well-being, but to call on government to function well for the sake of our neighbor, community, and all of creation.

Samuel had more than a few concerns with the people’s request for a king. Which is somewhat ironic, because the people had more than a few concerns about the so-called “legacy” Samuel was building by installing his corrupt sons as judges over Israel. Eli had tried this before—a “keeping-it-in-the-family” succession plan—and it didn’t work out at all. Yet, Samuel’s was concerned that the people were rejecting him. His sons had “turned aside after gain; took bribes and perverted justice,” but the Israelites were not interested in Samuel fixing the problem or even having Samuel stay on as judge himself. They wanted a king. Of course, the people forgot that a king’s sons are princes; their concern about corrupt heirs would continue—and likely grow worse—in the new form of government they were proposing. 

But God corrects Samuel—it isn’t that the people are rejecting Samuel, it is that they are rejecting God. It isn’t that they are rejecting God as king, though. When Moses gave his final instructions to the Hebrew people, when they were on the doorstep of the promised land, he said, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15aBut the king Moses has in mind is warned against acquiring horses or wives—signs of military might or economic prowess—but instead, the king should be one who meditates regular on Torah—God’s law—so he can rule with justice, mercy, and equity—always watching for the needs of neighbor, community, and creation. Moses knew that it is the kind of king which establishes the kind of kingdom Moses wanted for the people (and wanted the people to desire for themselves), a kingdom that is defined by fidelity to God and God’s law. So he urged them to look for the one who would not turn aside from the commandments nor exalt himself above the people. (Deuteronomy 17:20)

The trouble is the people aren’t asking for a monarch to rule over them as Moses described. They want to instate a king with a mandate for war. This is the heart of their rejection of God. Israel is currently at peace with the people around them, but the people want a king to “go before us and fight our battles.” Finally ready to define themselves as a nation, the people ask for a king who will define or enlarge their territory by going to war. Journalist, activist, and Presbyterian pastor Chris Hedges wrote, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Israel has decided that war will define it as a kingdom, with borders, and battles—not their relationship to Godand not their faithfulness to God’s law and not their faith lived out in care for the neighbor. The system of judges brought the people low in the eyes of the nations at their borders. Humiliation has put the people in a fearful state of constant vigilance from which they hoped the king would free them. But, just as they turn a blind eye to the problems of succession, they delude themselves about the kind of kingdom that would result when the monarch becomes hungry for battle—how they would, inevitably, become a nation of xenophobes afraid of their neighbors, rather than a people called by God into a radical neighbor-love that extends to the foreigner, widow, and orphan who gleans from the edges of their fields.

What about us, Beloved? What instructions have we—one way or the other—given to our own government?

In the end, this story is about vocation—our vocation, and the vocation of government. Martin Luther always maintained that vocation was much more than our occupations—it was the whole constellation of ourselves:our relationships, backgrounds, and circumstances. And, more, vocation is a response to the call of God, which is always lived out in careful attention to the needs of our neighbor. In this story, both the vocation of Israel and the vocation of the potential king are out of focus. God did not call Israel to be a nation of warmongers. Nor did God call Israel to be afraid of her neighbors, putting up a wall against their needs. God called Israel and blessed her so that she might be a blessing to the nations—to the whole world. We miss the calling of God if we focus only on our fears and desires and not our neighbors with the greatest need, and then, we miss the opportunity to be blessed to be a blessing.

This is also a story about the specific vocation of citizenship. Luther held that government was a way that God influences the world. As such, for Lutherans, the key citizenship question, the question we should hold before ourselves at our polling places and when we engage with our elected officials is: “Is the neighbor being served?” This question resists those who would tell us we should be afraid of our neighbors or insist that government exists to fulfill our needs alone. It certainly challenges the conversation that affirms the rights of some are allowed to transgress on the lives and livelihoods of others. Instead, it turns us in love toward our neighbor. It turns us toward the place where we might yet bear witness—in real and concrete ways—to the work that God is doing to redeem and renew us and our world. Amen.