Judges 2:1-5, 17:6, 1 Samuel 8:19-22, 2 Kings 24:18-20a
The Story, Part I:Squabbling
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about ways that God establishes to help the Israelites remember their relationship: God will be their God, they’ll be God’s people. And they’ll put God first, and love God with heart, mind, soul, strength, and they’ll express this as they live out the law, caring for each other, loving one another. And now we see why. The people still haven’t quite come into full possession of the Promised Land. There have been wars and setbacks, and Moses has died and Joshua is now leading them. And already, people are losing their connection to God and the law. Joshua has declared that he and his house will follow God. But this isn’t the case with all the Israelites. Some of them have started paying attention to the practices and beliefs of the people around them. And in our first reading, from Judges, God calls them out on their behavior. They’ve broken covenant. What follows is a long period of ups and downs for Israel. The people start to focus on needing a king. They are sure that will fix their problems somehow. But it’s just one more demand in a long string of demands the people put to God, insisting that if God just does this one more thing, then they’ll be good for God. “If you just do _________ for us God, then we will truly be your people.” They think they want a king. They think that will fix everything. But of course, if they can’t follow a divine ruler, why would they follow an earthly fallible king? Still, God, speaking through Samuel in our second text, grants them what they desire. It comes as no surprise to us as readers, though, that it doesn’t work out. By the close of their season of king after kings, the people are further than ever from following God, they’re broken and divided, and they’re sent into exile.
So how do things unravel? All throughout the books of 1 and 2 Kings, (books of history in the Bible, which recount the long line of the leaders of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) in addition to details about standout events in the reign of that particular king, the author also “scores” each reign in this way: The author either says that the king “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” an unfortunately rare comment, or that the king “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” - that’s how the reign of too many leaders is summed up. That’s clear, and unambiguous. They did good, or they did evil. And given those two choices, we know what we’re supposed to strive for at least, right? We want to do what is good in God’s eyes.
But what strikes me, in our readings today, is that while this language - good or evil in God’s sight - is directed at the rulers, the kings, in Judges, the author says this: “And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The text doesn’t say specifically. We can, and will, look for some context clues, but we can also mull over these words ourselves.
“And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” What would be wrong with this? Is there anything wrong with this kind of thinking? Why shouldn’t we all just do what’s right in our own eyes? I’m sure sometimes I tell people something very similar to this: you have to do what you think is right. And there are ways in which I think that’s true. It doesn’t seem like there’s a clear right and wrong choice in every situation we encounter, does it? Sometimes figuring out the best thing to do seems like a gray and murky endeavor. So figuring out what’s right is something we have to take responsibility for, and we do that as we exercise our gift of free will, as we work out our sense of ethics - the guiding moral principles that govern our lives. And we know, of course, that we do not always come to the same conclusions about what is right as those around us. Sometimes, that’s ok. Maybe two different families come to different conclusions about whether one parent wants to stay home to care for children in the household. And after mulling over options, one family decides that they think it is most important that the children see their parents as workers, balancing careers and home life. And another family decides that it is most important that at least one parent is home, providing direct care for the children at all times. Is one conclusion more right than the others? I don’t think so, not if all involved are doing their best, looking at the best results for their households, and then trying to act in accordance with their ethics, their guiding moral principles. Is that what “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” means?
However, sometimes we slip from knowing there are times when people come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong in ways that make sense, to feeling like there is no real right or wrong at all. This is what’s called “moral relativism.” Moral relativism means that “in … disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and … because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.” Everyone is just figuring things out for themselves, sometimes people come to different conclusions about what’s right and wrong, and we should just accept that - and accept people’s differing conclusions. Many people feel strongly that this is true. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” A good thing.
Here’s the thing though. If someone believes that racism is ok, should we just accept that they have a “different point of view?” Is right and wrong murky, or clear? If someone believes it is ok to beat and abuse their children as part of discipline for children’s misbehavior, is that just a different parenting ethic? If someone has decided that, after careful consideration, murdering someone isn’t wrong as long as they “deserve” to die, do we have to accept their conclusions? “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Ah. Perhaps there’s something amiss, really amiss, when we read that God’s people are all doing whatever they think is best. And then we add in the context, what we know from what we talked about last week, and what we know from the rest of today’s texts. We know that the people have spent years receiving the law - how many commandments? (613!) So apparently God thinks that in at least these instances, the people don’t need to decide what’s right and wrong. God has given them guidance. And we know that in the first part of our text from Judges, God declares that while God has kept the covenant they’ve made, the people have not. They’ve broken the law. In particular, they’ve not remembered to keep God first. They’ve all just done whatever seemed best to them. And the result was that their identity as God’s set apart people has started to crumble.
Eventually, the people are sure they can fix their relationship with God if they can just get an earthly king to rule them, like all the other nations have. That’s what they need: a person they can see, who can talk directly to them, who can enforce rules and regulations with power and authority. Then, they will stay on the straight and narrow. God tries to dissuade them. God is their ruler. They shouldn’t need any other kind of king. But after a period of Judges, set up to judge but not rule, the Israelites still want a king. Before our passage from 1 Samuel, Samuel, the prophet, tries to tell them all the ways they are going to regret asking for a king. But they don’t listen. And God, hearing their complaining, concedes. They can have a king. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t fix their problems, and by the end of 2 Kings, God’s people have been conquered, and they are exiled - kings included - to Babylon.
In Judges, in 1 & 2 Samuel, in 1 & 2 Kings, we see a people wrestling with questions about authority. Who’s in charge? Are they in charge of themselves? Is a judge in charge, or a king? Or is God in charge? Who’s going to be the ruler of their lives? Who will be the authority for the Israelites? We still have to answer these questions today. And I think, so often, we try to answer just like the Israelites did. Oh, I think they wanted God to have some power and authority in their lives. Just not all. They wanted God to be there to protect them, to encourage them, to tell other people what to do, to punish other people when they were wrong. But they also wanted God to leave them alone when they reached a different conclusion than God about what was right. Aren’t we the same? What kind of authority and power do you want God to have in your life? How does God rule in your life? Do you want God to be a mentor, a friend, but not someone who tells you what to do? Would you rather that God didn’t rule you?
I think we’re afraid that if we give our whole lives to God, if we let God be in charge, then we end up powerless. We forget that God is not a dictator. We get to decide whether or not we want God to rule us. We get to decide whether we will let God be the authority that guides of our lives each day. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power if we choose not to be God’s people. It just means that God, who loves us, wants our willing hearts, not zombie followers who can’t make choices. But, if we choose God, if we give God the authority to be the only true Ruler of our lives, we have to come to terms with this: God isn’t interested in giving us mild suggestions that we are never going to listen to. We might have to figure out what God is leading us to do, but God doesn’t have a murky sense of what’s best. We might wrestle with how to live out God’s commandment of love, but that doesn’t make it any less of a commandment. Do we want God to rule us? Or would we rather do what’s right in our own eyes? We can’t have it both ways.
This week a group of us from First UMC, North Gouverneur, and other area churches traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to see, among other things, the production of Jesus at the Sight and Sound Theatre, known for putting on elaborate, visually stunning productions about stories from the Bible. Jesus, naturally, told the story of Jesus’s ministry, from his calling of the disciples, through Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. What stuck most for me, besides the really cool special effects, was Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was betrayed and arrested. In the production we saw, as Jesus prayed, he wrestled with voices in his mind trying to lure him away from doing what Jesus knew he must. We read in the scriptures, Jesus asking God, his parent: “If it is possible, can you take this cup - this path - this suffering - away from me?” But of course, we know that Jesus concludes, “Not my will, but your will be done [God].” And that’s what Jesus repeated over and over in this production - “Not my will but yours be done, not my will but yours be done!” They aren’t words that come easily to Jesus. They are wrested from the depths of his soul. If we think Jesus goes lightly to his death just because he trusts God, we’re wrong. He would rather any other path was the path to which God was calling him in that moment. But Jesus has made a commitment: Not my will, but your will be done. He knows he can’t have it both ways. If God is God for Jesus, if God is Ruler of the Universe, then even Jesus must choose God’s will over his own. God won’t force him. But that doesn’t mean both choices, both paths are right. Jesus chooses not his own will, but God’s.
What will we choose? Choosing God’s path is hard, especially when it bumps up, even collides head on with what we think is best. But God doesn’t really rule our hearts and lives if we only choose God’s way when it neatly coincides with our own. The hardest part of discipleship is choosing God’s path when we’re sure we know better. Yet - not our will God, but yours be done.
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we give special attention to the gift of communion, and especially when we give thanks and celebrate our oneness in the Body of Christ, as we know that Christians everywhere are joining at the table with us today. It is also a reminder for us: we are not alone. And so what we do doesn’t just affect us. We’re one body. I can’t just decide what’s right for me, not without it affecting my siblings in Christ. So instead of me trying to decide what’s best for everyone - as tempting as that seems! - I choose to be ruled by God. Sometimes, I will be as awful at it as the Israelites were. But sometimes, maybe more and more with a life of following in the ways of Jesus, I will claim with conviction: “Not my will, but yours be done God.”
And all the people did what was right - in God’s eyes. May it be so. Amen.