In last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people of Israel insisted to Samuel that they wanted a king. Up until then, God had set a series of judges and prophets over them, in addition to the elders of their tribes, to carry out justice and provide leadership. Samuel was not just a prophet—God governed the people through Samuel. He was judge over them and made a circuit each year administering justice. But as Samuel got older, the elders wanted a succession plan, and there didn’t seem to be a good one. Samuel’s sons did not follow in their father’s footsteps. The narrative of 1 Samuel tells us the sons turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. Samuel’s sons would not be good leaders, so the elders of Israel ask for a king. Other countries have a king. And those countries are more powerful. Their kings protect them and fight their battles. Neither Samuel nor the Lord are pleased with this request, but the Lord is resigned to it, and tells Samuel to listen to the people. Even though God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, gave them a good land flowing with milk and honey, having God as their ruler isn’t good enough. They want an earthly king. God warns them through Samuel that things are not going to go well for them. A king will take their sons to drive his chariots and work his fields, he’ll take their daughters to serve in his kitchens, he’ll take the best of their fields and olive groves, he’ll take a tenth of everything they produce, he’ll take their servants, and their livestock. But the people don’t listen to the warnings. They want a king, so they’ll be like other nations and have a leader to go out and fight their battles.
So, God gives them what they think they want: Saul, the son of a wealthy man, handsome, young, and tall—head and shoulders above everyone else. You just have to look at him to know he is meant to be king. Saul is a mighty warrior, and he does indeed fight and win the people’s battles, but he doesn’t listen to God. And that is more important than anything else. Saul had wealth, might, height and good looks. But he disobeyed God. So, God rejects him from being king and chooses another.
That’s where our story for today begins. God is going to take a different path this time around—take a closer look at the heart of the person who will be king rather than status and outward appearance. The Lord sends Samuel to an out-of-the-way place called Bethlehem to anoint a new king. Samuel is understandably wary. What is Saul going to do if he finds out Samuel is anointing another king? “He’ll kill me!” Samuel says to God. “Well, don’t tell people what you’re doing!” God replies. “Take a heifer and say you have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.” And that is what Samuel does. He arrives in Bethlehem and invites Jesse to the sacrifice. The elders come out to meet Samuel, trembling with fear. Why is he there? Samuel is not a meek and mild servant of the Lord—he is a powerful judge, a mighty warrior, one who makes and breaks kings in the name of the Lord. It is understandable that the elders are afraid when this mighty prophet comes into their midst. Samuel assures them that he has come peaceably and invites them to the sacrifice.
Jesse and his seven sons are there. In that ancient world and in scripture, numbers have symbolic meaning. Seven is the number of completion—God had finished creation and rested on the seventh day. Naaman bathed in the Jordan seven times to be healed of leprosy. Joshua marched around Jericho for seven days before the walls fell. Peter asked Jesus “how many times must I forgive? Seven?” That should be enough, that’s the number of completion. “No, Jesus says, 70 times 7.” How’s that for completion? There are sevens all over the book of Revelation. Seven symbolizes completion, perfection, and wholeness.[i] So Jesse’s seven sons make a complete set, and that is how they are presented. No others have appeared or been called. One by one, these seven sons come before Samuel. Eliab is first, and he must have looked like kingly material because Samuel thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God tells Samuel, “No. We’re doing things differently this time around. We’re not choosing someone because he looks like a king. That’s focusing on the externals. What really matters is what’s inside. Don’t look at his appearance or height. I don’t see like you humans see, I’m looking at the heart.” One by one Jesse’s seven sons pass before Samuel and the Lord rejects them all.
“Is this all of them?” Samuel asks Jesse.
“Well, there’s the youngest,” Jesse says, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”
The youngest, the extra one, number 8, doesn’t really count. But Samuel is on a mission from God and says, “Bring him. We’re not going to sit down and eat until he’s here.” So, David is brought in from the fields, and the Lord says, “This is the one. Anoint him.” And Samuel pours the oil over David, making him God’s king. As that oil flows down over David’s head, so does the Spirit of the Lord. That Spirit will remain with him from that day forward.
One of the humorous points of this text, is that the narrator can’t help but comment on David’s appearance, even though God has said it’s not important. David was ruddy, he says, he’s a red-head, has beautiful eyes, and is handsome. It’s as though the narrator is saying, “So there. Even though David’s heart is what really matters, we got ourselves a handsome king anyway.”
After the first misstep with Saul, God chose a king with a heart that would listen to and follow God. David was not perfect. He made some pretty colossal, even murderous, mistakes. But he had a heart that could recognize when he had gone astray, a heart that could listen, feel remorse and repent. Qualities every leader should have. God chose David from the margins of society, even from the margins of his own family. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “The story draws our attention to the one outside the completed number, the one who surely is an outsider.”[ii] Bethlehem itself was an outlier--south of Saul’s northern kingdom and outside Samuel’s usual territory. As Brueggemann says, “The young David is one of the marginal people. He is uncredentialed and has no social claim to make.”[iii]
God chooses the one who would become Israel’s greatest king from the least, the marginalized, the one who was overlooked and not even considered to be a son worthy to present to Samuel. David was an afterthought. You can almost hear the surprise and puzzlement in Jesse’s voice when Samuel asks if there are any other sons, “Well, sure, there’s the youngest, but he’s out tending the sheep. Why would you want to see him?” In our society, where wealth, status, citizenship, the family you were born in to, and skin color still play such a large role in who is considered worthy and of value, we need to hear and tell over and over again stories like David’s anointing. We need to really hear God’s words, “I do not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” and we need to live by those words. The story of David’s anointing teaches us that no one should be overlooked or written off or deemed unworthy. The most unexpected, marginalized person could well be the one God has chosen to make a difference, to lead, to bear much fruit.
This is one of the major themes of scripture—that there is great value and potential in those society would toss aside, overlook, or never consider worthy. Over and over again, Jesus taught this lesson: “blessed are the poor,” “let the children come to me”—children, who had no status whatsoever in that society. Jesus said, “in as much as you do it to the least of these: prisoners, those who are hungry, naked, sick--you do it to me.” He healed lepers, who were forced to literally live beyond the margins, and brought them back into the community, he healed widows and their sons, little girls—people who had absolutely no status in society. He called fishermen to be his disciples—ordinary laborers. He ate and talked with despised tax collectors; prostitutes; hung out with those labelled “sinners” by those considered righteous. You cannot read the gospels without seeing the immense gulf between how Jesus lived and calls us to live and treat others and how we actually live and treat others in this society. Jesus values and cherishes the very people we discount and marginalize.
This past week we saw our attorney general and our current administration use scripture to justify tearing families apart at the border, when what our country is doing, what is being done in our name, is antithetical to the gospel—it has nothing to do with Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors and to care for the least of these. Every week we remind ourselves in worship that the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and that all other laws hang on these two.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed. As he often does, Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world, but it was probably the smallest seed known in the Palestinian world of Jesus’ day.[iv] From this tiny seed a bush can grow as high as 20 feet with a 20-foot spread, offering shelter and a home to other creatures. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. God’s kingdom grows from the least, from the tiniest, from the most insignificant person, deed, act or word. We cannot discount any person or any deed of kindness, any act of integrity, any instance of someone doing the right thing, no matter how ordinary or commonplace or small that may be.
Scripture, as a whole, and our scripture lessons for today teach us that God values the least of these, God seeks out those on the margins, welcomes them—and, even more, heals them, supports them, anoints them so that they may grow and flourish and be partners in God’s realm. If we are going to follow God and be Jesus’ disciples, we must do the same. It is all too easy to fall into despair about what is happening in our country and around our world. I find myself having to battle hopelessness every day. But these passages give me hope, encouragement and inspiration. They remind me that I follow and belong to a God that does not see as the world sees and does not value people as our society and our current leaders value people. These two parables Jesus tells--first, of the seed growing mysteriously, sprouting, becoming a stalk, then a full head of grain ready for harvest; and second, of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large, sheltering bush—these two stories teach us that even though our efforts may seem small, God is at work. Even though it may seem like kindness, welcome, hospitality, and love are nothing against the forces of greed, fear, power and ambition; the very opposite is true. Those are the mustard seeds God uses to bring the kingdom into fruition. Those are the seeds that when scattered across the land can grow into a harvest of righteousness, justice, and love.
We cannot write anyone off, or value the people on the margins of society any less than we value ourselves, or anyone who has resources and power. If God values and seeks out the least, then so must we as Jesus’ disciples. We cannot stand by while the least of these who are most dear to God’s heart are suffering. And we cannot give in to hopelessness and helplessness. I don’t care whether you find yourself on the blue or red end of the political spectrum, when it comes to children being separated from their families, this is a matter of faith and following Jesus. If there is an issue that Franklin Graham on one extreme and the United Church of Christ on the other are in agreement on, then surely we can turn this around. On this Father’s Day, and in the coming days, I urge you to do something to speak out against what our country is doing to tear fathers and mothers away from their children. Trust that your voice, your letter, your postcard, your phone call, whatever action you take will be added to all the other small steps to bring about change. Jesus assures us that is how God works. The kingdom of God is all about tiny seeds that grow into flourishing, sheltering plants. The message of scripture is plain. It calls us to value the least and to trust that whatever seeds of love we sow, whatever steps we take in following Jesus, no matter how small they may seem, God will use them; God will grow those seeds into the kingdom.
Now, to the one who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
[i] Here is one site that discusses many instances of the number 7, and its meaning, in scripture. You can find many others.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 122.
[iii] Brueggemann, p. 124.
[iv] William C. Placher, Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 73.