Pentecost 4 (Proper 6/Ordinary 11): Year B

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

This reading is the sequel to last week’s passage from First Samuel, in which the Israelites clamour for a king to rule over them, even in the face of YHWH’s warnings that a king will only bring them oppression and exploitation. Saul has proved to be the tyrannical disaster the Israelites were warned he would be; and Samuel, having confronted Saul for his failings, has foretold his doom, and the wrenching of the kingship from his family’s hands. This terrible destiny is symbolised by their parting of ways, each to their own place; and the fact that the two will not see one another again. This parting is emblematic of God having withdrawn from Saul.

Nonetheless, Samuel deeply regrets Saul’s failings and all its consequences – both for Saul himself, as well as for the people of Israel. But YHWH has already set in motion the bringing to light of the new king of Israel, and commands Samuel to travel to Bethlehem. It is interesting to note that the elders of that town trembled at Samuel’s approach; the prophet was strongly associated with Saul (an association that was perhaps also a source of Samuel’s grieving) and probably feared that he might be the harbinger of more bad news or oppression from the king’s hand. Samuel, however, assures them to the contrary; he has come merely to offer a sacrifice to YHWH. So the elders sanctify themselves along with Jesse and his sons – Jesse presumably being one of the elders – and they prepare for the sacrifice.

There follows a sequence in which Samuel notices each of the sons of Jesse in turn and speculates whether they are the one whom God will anoint to be the new king.  At first Samuel thinks that Eliab, the eldest of Jesse’s sons, is the one because of his “stature”; he has the “look” of a king. But God cautions Samuel not to look at Jesse’s sons with the eyes of conventional assessment; God seeks to know the inner heart. Eliab, whatever his personal virtues may be, is not the one to be chosen.

And so it is with each of Jesse’s sons in turn.  At last Samuel questions Jesse, who admits he has another son; the youngest, who is tending his flocks. Now, it needs to be noted that, despite its importance to an agrarian economy, the work of shepherding flocks was also looked down upon, seen as a task fit only for slaves and younger sons. Why younger sons? Because they would not inherit their father’s property. In a patriarchal society, that was the privilege of elder sons. So David, the youngest, is out tending sheep precisely because the conventional expectation is that he will essentially spend his life in service to his elders.

Now, it is important to note that the text states that David was “ruddy” – that is to say, wind- and -sunburned from the long exposure to the elements that was part-and-parcel of shepherding flocks. This would immediately have set him apart as an “uncouth” rural worker. True, the text also says that he had “beautiful eyes” and was “handsome”; but this was part of a convention in the ancient world that kings were physically flawless as a sign of their worthiness to be king. But the fact that the text also notes David’s complexion, one that identified him neither as a scholar nor as an aristocrat, but as a commoner, is significant. This is in keeping with the divine narrative – whose threads appear all throughout the Scriptural tradition – that God will raise the lowly to great heights, and make the least likely among the people to be the mouthpieces of God’s prophetic Word.

And immediately Samuel recognises that David is the one whom God has chosen, and anoints him. The text informs us that “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward”, a further sign of him having been anointed, not merely in terms of human forms associated with kingly coronation, but as the fulfiller of God’s purpose.

In the world of work and economy, it is often those who make the best “show” who attract the confidence of others, and are given credibility and authority. Being seen as though you know what you are talking about (as distinct from actually knowing what you’re talking about) can take you a long way. People are impressed by first appearances. A plausible presentation, a glib articulateness, a superficial degree of knowledge are often the foundations of deep power and influence. The idolatry of success, the demand for “results”, the pressure of time constraints, all militate against deeper discernment. Anyone with a reputation as an “achiever” – whether deserved or not – can often go far on the basis of that reputation alone.

Nor is this the case only in the corporate world. As more than one observer of economics has noted, the economic models upon which many an economist’s reputation is founded – indeed, upon which entire branches of economics is founded – bear little if any connection to the reality of most people’s lives, let alone the basis upon which they make “economic” decisions. Rather, there appears to be an obsession with creating “elegant” solutions based on mathematical formulae rather than observational data; an obsession that gives the impression, but lacks the substance, of an actual scientia – that is, body of what might be properly called knowledge.

But such success is also more than just a matter of superficial deception. It is often the extent to which one conforms to conventional notions and expectations of authoritativeness and “received wisdom” that determines whether you are appreciated or dismissed. In other words, the extent to which you “look like” a “king” because you match the pre-assumed criteria of what a “king” “looks like”. This is the case with Jesse and his sons: they look like what Samuel expects a king to look like; but God wants Samuel to delve deeper. And although David is attributed with the traditional physical marks of kingship, he is also attributed with a sign of something that sets him apart – he is a commoner, one who is not looked on as a plausible candidate for kingship.

The rise of the neoliberal hegemony in world affairs has given rise with it to a set of policy prescriptions which determine the “orthodoxy” or otherwise of not just economic policy, but the entire gamut of public policy outcomes. In their rush to receive the imprimatur of the “markets” (which is to say, the powerful “investor class” of financial institutions, owners of capital, and wealthy “supermanagers”) politicians of all stripes have conformed themselves to the prescriptions of “respectability” and “credibility” laid down by neoliberalism. The decades since the 1970s have seen a plethora of articulate, well-presented, seemingly knowledgeable “world leaders”, each of whom has claimed to offer a “new way” whereby the social contract might be placed on a new and better setting – but each of whom has done little more than entrench the status quo demanded by the “market” and the politico-academic advocates of neoliberalism.

But this inertia has led to political instability and fragmentation, and the rise of popularists on both the Left and Right whose electoral traction is based, at least in part, on the fact that they are not part of the “political establishment”. As the general public increasingly chafes under the burden of rising inequality, and the endless cycle of promises for “reform” and change that end up going nowhere, popularists who give voice to that discontent and who identify as “political outsiders” are seen as an increasingly attractive option to the electorate. But just as Samuel initially did not exercise discernment when the sons of Jesse appeared before him, so the success of these popularists is often based on public distraction and a lack of discernment. They are the dark mirror-image of the “successful” politician: just as the public failed to see beneath the glibness of the conventional political order, so they fail to see beneath the superficial allure of popularists who claim to speak into their concerns on their behalf.

Today’s reading is a timely call for the need for discernment – in the world of work, the world of economics, the world of politics and public policy. It is a reminder that when we make choices and select options, the temptation to take the most plausible and presentable may seem the “right” decision; but we should be alert to the subversive call of God, which sees true depth and knowledge in the unlikely and the unsuspected. Not merely because they are unlikely or unsuspected, and thus different; but because of what the nature of that difference tells us about what may be residing in the depths.

Psalm 20

It is instructive to read Psalm 20 in light of today’s reading from First Samuel. What at first glance appears to be a prayer of petition on behalf of an imperial/kingly power turns out to be something quite different: a submission of the prerogatives of kingship to the prerogatives of God. Indeed, even beyond this, an association of kingship properly understood and practiced with covenant relationship with God. For just as the reading from First Samuel requires deeper discernment beyond surface appearances, so this prayer for kingship requires a movement away from panegyric toward humility.

The first four and a half verses might confirm the suspicion that this is a rather obsequious hymn of praise for and on behalf of a king – the kind of “may the gods grant you victory” declaration that kings not only expected from their court poets, but which associated the kingly power with divine sanction and rule.  But halfway through verse 5 there is a note of discord – and in the name of the God set up on our banners is a reminder that there is another power in play here, one whose authority not only requires acknowledgement but with whom ultimate sovereignty lies.

This theme is continued in the first half of verse six: Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed. Clearly, any power which anoints a king has power over that king: the king acknowledges their kingship exists under the sovereignty of the anointing power. Anointing in this context is not merely a matter of bestowing blessing or the rites of office: it is, in itself, a display of the power and authority to anoint. Obviously, any king projecting himself as the anointed of God will want that to be a reflection on the legitimacy and authority of his own rule; but beyond this opportunism lies the fact of submission.

But if we are also to take seriously the need for discernment in today’s reading from First Samuel, we need to consider the basis upon which God anoints those who are to be kings. It is not on the basis of conventional or normative standards of legitimacy, on the surface appearances. Rather, it is what resides in the depths that qualifies one for rule, and which legitimates kingly authority. Just as David, despite an outward appearance that marked him as a “commoner”, and therefor ordinarily excluded from considerations of candidacy for kingship, nonetheless possessed a heart that stood up to scrutiny, so one who is “the anointed” of God will also be one in possession of deep springs of faith. In other words, one who is truly an “anointed” king is not likely to attempt the political exploitation involved in associating their own reign with the divine will; the emblazoning of God’s name on the king’s banners will be an act of humility rather than triumphalist hubris.

This is emphasised in verse 7, which describes on one hand the trappings of imperial power in which some rulers delight, while on the other affirming that the “pride” of the truly “anointed” is in the name of the LORD our God. In other words, as with so many other things, kingly activity – kingship itself – is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The ruler who is truly anointed of God utilises kingship, not to acquire the trappings of power (even where these exist or arise as a consequence of kingship), but will seek instead to be a king who embodies and practices covenant.

The idolatry of success and the apparent “triumph” of the neoliberal hegemony in world affairs may offer us the temptation of supposing that this “success” is the result of its own inherent “virtues”, and that such success is the “reward” the legitimises both our own conduct and the system as a whole. Modernity’s construction of world and economics, geared as it is toward the co-option of the individual and the subordination of life to the demands of the “market”, may flatter our vanity even as it hides the ulterior motives it often serves. We may think we are autonomous agents acting rationally in our own self-interest, part of a web of self-interested activity that somehow invariably works out for the common good; but in truth, we are enslaved to the powers of dehumanisation and alienation, powers which declare both the ineluctable legitimacy and necessary inevitability of their rule.

In other words, powers which are an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. In just the same way that modernity’s construction of work has become an end in itself, co-opting the whole of our lives and squeezing out consideration of any other form of work or human activity; just as modernity’s construction of economics proclaims the “end of history” and the arrival of humankind at its ultimate stage of social evolution; so the hierarchies of power which flourish under these constructions declare that they themselves are the endpoint and grounds for human life and salvation. They serve not God, nor society, nor even some abstract theory of social or political organisation: they serve only themselves.

But Psalm 20 reminds us that it is not the imperial powers of the world but God who holds ultimate sovereignty. The very necessity to petition God’s aid for kings is a recognition that it is not upon kings, but upon God, that human salvation ultimately rests. But the petition itself is neither unqualified nor uncritical; subtly, it introduces the idea of God’s reign like a subversive thread that weaves its way among and through the loom of hubristic power, transforming it from a claim for the ultimate right of kings to an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God. The economists and capitalists who today stride the world like colossi are largely unaware of, and make no account for, this subversive thread. But they are mistaken in their view of its inconsequence; as are we, too, when we succumb to the myth of our own autonomy, and the ideology of the strictly rational, self-interested individual.

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

Today’s reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is, like last week’s passage, looking toward the eschatological horizon that is the basis of Christian hope. This hope dares to proclaim that all that is mortal and transient in human life – including life itself and the reality of death – does not have the final word in human existence. Rather, because through Christ, our mortal life has been taken up into the eternal life of God, we have the hope that in the final consummation of all things, death will be overcome and humankind will be restored to the abundant, fully human life that is the Kingdom of God.

But as with last week’s reading, today’s passage is also firmly located in the present, in the transformed way of being to which faith is meant to point, and embody, in our daily lives. The Christ who died for us also died for all; our confidence is therefore not in any claim that we are part of a privileged elect, but that God’s scheme of salvation encompasses not only the world itself, but all the powers and forces of the world – including those that bind us to living death.

Likewise, because Christ died for all, then the lives we must live as Christ’s disciples is likewise transformed; we live, not for our own purposes, but for the purpose declared by God in Christ: the redemption of creation. Our lives become outwardly focused, even as our inner being dwells exclusively on and with God. We live for the Christ who lived and died for the world; therefore, we too, while we live, live for the world.

This living for others is indicated by the fact that the call to faith is a call to change the way we view the world. As Paul writes, we are called to no longer see others as the world seems them, through the lens of the conventional standards of success and legitimacy. The very nature of human existence has been transformed by Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection. What was once true about human life is no longer true; the promise, having been made, has been fulfilled, even as it is yet to come to its full completion. Our faith calls us to see the world through a transformed lens, one that sees in every individual the redemptive grace of God at work.

The world of waged labour promises us transformation: we can earn an income, build savings, start planning for everything we deem to be a priority in life – holidays, home, assets, perhaps even a family. The promise allures us with the ideal of the fully realised self: the autonomous individual, able to control the course of their life and determine the outcome of every situation. But once we take up the promise, we discover that, if it is to be fulfilled at all, it must come at a terrible cost; but for most of us, we experience the equally terrible cost of boredom, frustration, and a creeping sense of futility combined with the stress of corporate expectation and the threat of arbitrary discipline or even loss of employment. We are promised agency and control; but most of us experience disillusionment and an all-pervading sense of powerlessness.

This ennui stems from the transformation which modernity’s construction of work induces: not one of elevation, but a reduction. People are reduced to being little more than units of production, or costs in the chain of operation; rather than being fully fleshed individuals, the worker is reduced to a consideration in whether or not the corporation will make a profit or loss. This is why ethics in the world of waged labour has been itself reduced to a co-option of the person for profit-making purposes: what is good and ethical has been re-branded as what is productive and efficient.

Modernity’s construction of work, allied to the myth of the autonomous individual, does not set us free, but binds us even further to itself. It claims to serve others – especially through the assertion that others are “lifted” out of poverty –  but the ultimate interests which it serves are its own. The thousands who are yearly killed, maimed, traumatised, or emotionally and psychologically crippled as a consequence of the pressures of work are discarded – not just by corporations, but by various “workers compensation” schemes that are primarily focused on the “outcome” of reducing the numbers of “injured” than it is on meaningfully attending to their hurts.

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that our lives in this world are not a mere waiting room for a world beyond, but the primary

realm in which the grace of God is operative and the foretold Kingdom embodied. This being the case, the world of work is as much a part of this embodiment as any other realm in human life. But modernity’s distortion of work and economy has turned us away from that truth, leaving us with the outward form, but none of the inner substance.

Mark 4:26-34

It is highly unlikely that the audiences to whom Jesus spoke would have found his parables as mystifying and confusing as do modern readers of the Gospels. Theirs, afterall, was a largely oral culture in which information was transmitted by word-of-mouth, and in which metaphors, images, and allusions would have been frequently employed to illustrate and explain abstract or complex ideas. Indeed, Jesus’ parables are noted for their use of agrarian and everyday images, devices which linked his proclamation of the Good News to the lived experience of the largely rural, largely working-class audiences to whom he spoke.

In today’s reading, however, there is an indication of difficulty and separation: the text tells us that Jesus spoke only in parables publicly, and that those who heard his preaching understood it “as they were able to hear it”. In private, however, he “explained” everything to his disciples.

This characterisation of Jesus’ teaching ministry seems to indicate that there was an element of mystery or inexplicable knowledge to his parables, one which he reserved for his disciples and communicated to them privately. Of course, it could be that the disciples were especially unintelligent and needed things explained twice over! More generously, it might be that Jesus was concerned to ensure that they understood precisely what it was that he was trying to communicate, so that when the time of their own teaching ministry arrived, they would faithfully articulate the Gospels to those who never had the opportunity to hear Jesus speak.

There is a danger in this idea that what Jesus articulated publicly through parables he later “explained” privately to the disciples. This danger is the conceit or assumption that, among Jesus’ followers, there is an “elect” of “special few” who have a kind of privileged access to the truths that Jesus proclaimed; and that, possessing such access, they are entitled to undisputed leadership of the community of faith, and to have their proclamations and declarations unhesitatingly and unquestioningly obeyed.

This “cult of knowledge” is precisely what underpinned the gnostic heresies of the early church. From the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”, the gnostic sects argued that salvation came, not through faith in Christ, but through accessing the “secret knowledge” that was the “real Gospel” which Jesus came to proclaim; and that only those elite few who were able to access this “secret knowledge” were able to escape both the torments of earthly experience as well as the fires of damnation. Similarly, this idea of “elites” possessing “expert knowledge” has been used to justify everything from clerical “authority” to the “messianic” status and claims of cult leaders. The temptation to gnostic pretensions remains alive and well, both within the heart and on the fringes of Christianity.

Of course, the equal danger lies in the reaction against this kind of exclusivism – the trend toward anti-intellectualism, for example, or the distortion of the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” that suggests every single Christian is called to, and capable of exercising, leadership in worship, for example, or presidency at the Sacraments. The “cult of knowledge” reduces the idea of vocation to an abuse of power; the misguided “priesthood of all believers” notion eliminates the Christian understanding of vocation all together.

These dangers are equally present in the world of work and economics. The sense of powerlessness most people experience through their subjection to waged labour emerges from their exclusion from the decision-making process. This is not a question of knowledge per se as it access: for most people, work is a process of experiencing significant levels of responsibility without a commensurate degree of authority or agency. Of course, there is an implicit divide in the worker-management separation: a divide that privileges management with a “secret knowledge” that entitles them to make decisions without reference to “mere” employees.

Likewise with economics. Most people struggle to understand the daily flood of information from the world on investment, trade, and industry, laden as it is with figures and acronyms that make little, if any, sense to those “not in the know”. Moreover, the emphasis in the industrialised nations on so-called “vocational education”, the cutting off of funding to those academic disciplines which encourage and facilitate the understanding and analysis of ideological concepts, and the very privatisation of education itself, all lend themselves to the restriction of knowledge to a privileged few. This in turn reinforces “right to rule” sentiments among society’s economic and political elites; as well as a corresponding apathy in the bulk of the population, whose lack of both information and access resigns them to exclusion and domination.

But the very fact that Jesus spoke the Gospel to “ordinary” people in language and with images they found both accessible and illuminating, indicates that salvation does not rest in “secret knowledge” or occupying privileged positions of power. Indeed, as Jesus himself declares in today’s parable, which acknowledges the mystery of the cycle of life within the natural world, grasping the significance of an outcome is not dependent on being au fait with the details of how that outcome came to be. Which is not to suggest that there is anything more “sacred” or “special” in ignorance; rather, that the “Good News” which Jesus proclaims belongs to all for the benefit of all. Salvation is not the possession or plaything of a privileged elite with “inside knowledge”.

Today’s reading is a reminder that the hierarchies of privilege, access, and exclusion which make up so much of modernity’s construction of work and economy are not merely invalid, they are directly contrary to God’s will for covenant relationship between individuals and communities. This is not to argue against the identification, training and formation of leaders and educators, whether in church, society, or the world of waged labour and corporate economy; but it is a reminder that this process must not be geared toward the preservation of privilege and the dehumanisation of others. The transformation proclaimed by the Gospel is the transformation of all humankind – a totality which we are called to embody in our economic, social, and political institutions.

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