Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life (The Rule of St. Benedict. Chapter 72).
Good words, sound words, words to live by: prefer nothing to Christ. Jesus himself gave us that instruction:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37, ESV throughout).
Jesus expressed the same even more bluntly in the Gospel according to St. Luke:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).
But this principle goes back much further; it was the essence of the Law, the lifeblood of Israel:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Dt 6:4-7).
And so we come to our first reading this morning, 1 Samuel 8. Samuel was among the greatest of Israel’s leaders: seer, judge, prophet, priest, king-maker. From his youth, he was a model of faithfulness: one who preferred nothing to the LORD, one who loved the LORD with all his heart and with all this soul and with all his might — or so it seemed. Perhaps it was old age, perhaps it was the desire to leave a legacy in Israel, perhaps it was an old man’s over-indulgent love.
1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice (1 Sam 8:1-3).
Children: what can we say? Sometimes the best of parents produce the worst of children, and sometimes the worst of parents produce the best of children. I suspect that Samuel was a lousy father who raised lousy sons. I say that simply because there are so few models of good fathers in Scripture; if you want examples of good family values, you really have to look elsewhere. It puzzles me a bit that God identifies himself as Father and then gives us so few good human examples of fatherhood. So, again, I suspect that Samuel was a lousy father who raised lousy sons. I suspect that he had not taught the Shema — Hear, O Israel — and the Great Commandment diligently to his children in any meaningful way. Certainly, his sons had not embraced those principles. It happens. I suspect that all parents have regrets — things they would do differently if they had a second chance.
But now, Samuel has a real decision, a tough decision. He’s old. He’s about to retire. Who will take his place? Who will judge Israel? He knows his sons are lousy; everyone knows his sons are lousy. I’ve seen similar parents in denial about their children, but they all really knew: these kids are lousy. And yet, Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
In this moment, Samuel loved his sons more than he loved the LORD, more than he loved the LORD’s people Israel. Or perhaps he loved himself or his name or his legacy more. In this moment he did not love the LORD his God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might. In this moment, neither do I. I want to, I think. I’m afraid to, I know. I want to want to, I believe.
When we don’t preferentially love the LORD, when we do prefer other things to Christ, nothing good comes of it. Samuel’s preference for his sons over the LORD caused the people of Israel to sin a great sin, to reject the sovereign rule of God, to forsake their unique covenant with God to be like all the nations.
This is a sobering challenge and admonition to all the shepherds of God’s people, especially to bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, lay leaders of all sorts. When we prefer something — anything — to Christ, when we fail to model preferential love for the LORD, then we lead people to reject the sovereign love, mercy, and rule of God. And that thought should drive us to our knees, to pray with the Psalmist:
Let not those who trust in you, O Lord GOD of hosts,
be ashamed because of me;
let not those who seek you be confounded through me,
O God of Israel (Ps 69:6, BCP 2019).
But this is true not just for the shepherd leaders of God’s people. It is equally true for all God’s representatives in the world, for all who bear the name of Christ and who bear public witness to him. If we do not exhibit preferential love for the LORD, if we do not obey the Great Commandment and the second which is like it — not only with our lips but in our lives — if we prefer something — anything — to Christ, then we are living like the nations around us. We are complicit in their rejection of the sovereign love, mercy, and rule of God. Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.
I find this text challenging and puzzling on many levels; God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, nor his ways my ways. Why didn’t God rebuke Samuel for appointing his lousy sons as judges? Why didn’t God strike down Joel and Abijah? It seems like either of these actions might have headed off Israel’s foolish and unfaithful insistence on being like the nations around them, their hell-bent determination to have a king. God did solemnly warn the people — in no uncertain terms — about the cost of having a king. Here is what God said through Samuel about a king:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take…he will appoint…he will take…he will take…he will take…he will take…he will take. And in that day you will cry out because of your King, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (cf 1 Sam 8:10-18).
This is as true today as it was then, and I’m not talking specifically about political leaders. No, I’m talking about anything we prefer to Christ. Whatever it is, it will take, it will take, it will take, it will take, it will take until we cry out to the Lord for mercy.
But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:20).
And so it was that God gave them what they wanted. They preferred to be like the nations rather than to be the unique, holy people under the sovereign reign of God. At least they preferred to be like the nations rather than to be judged by Samuel’s lousy sons.
What a dismal story. It’s really hard to say, “Thanks be to God,” at the end of this reading. I’ve heard it said that all stories have a happy ending if you just know when to stop reading; perhaps we should have stopped with 1 Samuel 7. But the great narrative of Scripture isn’t like that. It upends that notion. In Scripture, dismal stories have good endings if we don’t stop reading too soon.
Saul was appointed king and that was…well, if not a total disaster, then near enough to it. But though the people had rejected God, God had not rejected his people. He used the reign of Saul to prepare a king after his own heart, a king whom God called his son: David. And through David, God brought forth an everlasting kingdom, the kingdom of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It seems that even when we prefer something — anything — to the Lord, he nonetheless prefers nothing to us. It seems that when we fail to love the Lord our GOD with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might, he nonetheless loves us in that way. That’s a good and very good ending to the story. To that reading it is easy to say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.