A Vassal King is a Virtuous King

Douglas Olds (all rights reserved) --Sermon 6/29/08

First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, CA

Dt 17.14-20 (NRSV)  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,” 15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. 16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

 

 

A Vassal King is a Virtuous King 

Douglas Olds (all rights reserved) --Sermon 6/29/08

First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, CA

 

Lesson:   Dt 17. 14-20 “The Law of the King”

Theme: The king is to exemplify the peaceful nature of vassalage.

Structure: Plain Style

Purpose: Disciples, go and do likewise.

 

[Introduction:] A study published last November in the science journal “Nature”

under the title, Social evaluation by preverbal infants, states that,

“infants know the score…There is an inborn preference to affiliate with people who help strangers; infants prefer individuals who help others to those who either do nothing, or interfere with others' goals.” [1] 

Even before infants can speak, they show a preference for those who make natural allies and give of the self rather than show a tendency to make rivals. Infants show a biological imperative to detach from antisocial groupings and from so-called leaders who would only feather their own nests by engaging in rivalries.

It seems that our species demonstrates a deep seated intuition against Machiavellian princes.

 

[Exposition:]  In our Hebrew scripture reading this morning, we learn that the ancient Israelites were concerned with overweening behavior in their leaders.  This critique of kingship is one of the most important themes of the Deuteronomic scriptures. From the foundation of the institution of kingship in Biblical Israel, kings were judged for their failure to bring in God’s blessings of security and righteousness.

 A steady drumbeat of acrimony to the institution of monarchy was kept up by keepers of the prophets’ scrolls.  This acrimony was remarkable because the monarchic court funded the production of the very rhetoric that limited its own power. The court funded the storage and dissemination of that anti-court rhetoric during the millennium of kings from David to Herod.

The legitimacy of monarchic rule over Israel was called into question from the first king, Saul, who was ineffectual and irreligious: he wasted time in trivial cultic practices rather than securing the land from the Amalekites.  The second king, David, violated the moral law through murder, false witness, and adultery. Later kings compounded these paradigm faults: they were avaricious (like Rehoboam), carnal (like Solomon), insecure if just (like Hezekiah), ineffective if just (like Josiah) unjust if effective (like Ahab) or unjust if servile (like Jehoiakim).

To bring about wise rule in the conditions of vassalage under the rule of dangerous superpowers—first of Philistia, then of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—the temple elite subordinated the House of David as the glorified servant of the Torah.

This process begins with prophetic legitimation of the monarch.  Kings required prophetic anointing. David is anointed king by the prophet Samuel operating according to God’s desire.  David later even endures the prophet Nathan’s chastisement. 

As the Deuteronomic Torah is written, the subordination of the king progresses, so that in today’s passage of Dt 17: 14-20 (known as the “The Law of the King”), the king is humbled by compulsory Torah performances, limitation on his appetites, and humility with regard to his kinsfolk.

 

[Christology:] This harmony of glory and humility in the king--of dominion and servitude--is not a paradox, it seems to me; rather, because human nature is selfish and imitative, the servitude by the monarch as he or she holds the line against enemies and disaster is a sign for the people of their monarch’s good will and love toward them. Because of envy, human nature is suspicious of ease and luxury, attributing to the exercises of these a human spirit that would sell subjects out for the monarch’s own skin. True suffering by the monarch then becomes a political sign of commitment and solidarity by the monarch with the subjects. 

The most abject suffering for the sake of the most despised and rejected in society becomes in the Prophets the most valiant sign of fidelity and responsibility. By this, then, suffering and servitude as a character trait by the good monarch becomes personified in the Suffering Servant who is also the good shepherd of his or her people.  He or she is a shepherd so trustworthy that he or she abandons not even one of his or her flock--a righteousness of sufficient Torah humility and loyalty so that the monarch who manifests it becomes the representative of the worthiness of the monarch’s subjects before the overlord. 

This self-sacrifice says, see! my people are so valuable I am willing to suffer for them.  This demonstration of an attitude of self-sacrifice in the eyes of all is key.  According to scientists,[2] there is in the human brain the phenomenon of “mirror neurons” where identical behaviors are keyed in onlookers by the exemplary actions of others. Our species is a highly imitative species, and the unexpected and heartening acts of self-sacrifice are represented in those portions of the brains of on-lookers devoted to mirroring the same behavior.  This is why representative behavior—good and bad—can be contagious in crowds.

            It is the representative character of this servant king that makes him worthy of becoming the example of monarchy as described in our passage.  This model monarchy is not a utopian or homiletic ideal. Instead, it is the writer of Deuteronomy’s vision of the kind of character that a trustworthy king would exemplify under conditions of vassalage.  It demonstrates—it represents—the kind of wise and peaceful virtue that keeps a person alive and thriving under conditions of tyrannical overlordship.

In Dt 17, the king is vassal to the foreign powers, as Judah and Israel were for most of their history. This passage points to the king’s representative function before a higher power for a vassal people.  The king is to exemplify the peaceful nature of this vassalage, at the same time to act in a way that brings social cohesion to the displaced “children of Israel.” 

This role is to be implemented by focusing the vassal king on duties of religious centralization rather than expansionist foreign policy and petty aristocratic rivalries.  As we read, the Torah drastically limits opportunities for multiple horses and foreign wives

—the cavalry and harem prized by Solomon back then and by the dynasts and rival houses of history. 

 

[Application:]  In the application of this passage, I would like us first to consider the Old Testament version of the peaceful king, and then how that good king prefigures what we Christians believe about Jesus Christ, who is a vassal king before the highest of all powers, the One God.  Let us conclude by considering how our representative vassal king shapes our own discipleship.

 

First, the Old Testament view of the good king is one who carries out the spiritual intent of the Torah of the King:  That King stands in for the people, his followers, in their relationship with the overlord.  He is intermediary.  He is a propitiating figure.  He is a peace maker.  That King represents the guilt or innocence of the people to the overlord who has the power and the strength to punish. He is an atoning figure.  He stands in as a proxy for the loyalty or disloyalty of his subjects.  That King has intimate knowledge of the national god. He is a priestly king. That King meditates constantly on the covenant with the overlord.  He is the fulfiller of the law of covenant love. That King substitutes his own desires for that of the good of his people. He is a servant, rather than a rival, of his neighbor, per the love commanded in Lev 19.

The second dimension of this passage is the New Testament Encounter with the Perfect King:    In this, we see that the mercy and love of God for God’s people is revealed through the ideal king.  We see also that the representative suffering, perfection, and redemption of the ideal king stands for what his people may expect from that same God.

            The ultimate vindication of that “defeated king” by God is promised to all the followers of the resurrected king through the representational model of kingship before God.  And that, Brothers and Sisters, is Christ.

The good King is a figure who humbles himself before God.  He joins heart and mind through Torah observance.  Only a vassal king who can humble himself before the Supreme Sovereign is able to gain knowledge of the Supreme Sovereign.

The good King is observant of all the Torah and the decrees. As such, he is a perfect representative of human power, human power in sacrificial love and self-denial.

Third, we wonder what we as Christian disciples take from this passage, and how this discipleship seemed to me to be manifested at this past week’s General Assembly of the PC(USA) meeting in San Jose.  We might ask, What virtues of human conduct are presumed by the Law of the King?

Well, first, there is the virtue of Disinterestedness. When disciples are divorced from aggrandizing self-service, they may act justly and fairly. They do not develop rivalries based on accumulations of material goods or prestige that comes from human status seeking behavior.  We witnessed this virtue of disinterestedness repeatedly in our just-concluded General Assembly, where relatively anonymous commissioners inserted recommendations into business before the Assembly with the added phrase that they did “not need to win;”

rather they trusted the deliberative process to bring about a fair, just, and efficient decision.

An example of this was the controversial initiative for the denomination to produce an adolescent development curriculum.

Next, there is the virtue of Asceticism.  A disciple with little amassed wealth and few carnal outlets develops his or her personality around virtue rather than pleasure seeking.  We at GA unfortunately were brought evidence of the perversion of this virtue reported by the 30 years of sexual misconduct at Cameron House in San Francisco. Asceticism, it seemed to me, was less seen at General Assembly, though a provision in a homelessness resolution asks all Presbyterians to give up one meal per week, and to devote the proceeds to the homeless.

Following is the virtue of Patience.  A disciple who like the king daily meditates on Scripture is patient and willing to wait for God’s arrival, and for his or her own reward from God. At GA, this patience was exemplified by the deliberation of extended, very detailed social policy resolutions that were reported out to full assembly with grace and diligence.

Initiatives on homelessness, gun control, electoral reform, energy conservation, clean water, women’s pay, and more all were framed by the words of the prophet Micah: Do Justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. 

When we think of patience, we were presented with that of the African Americans in our church, who, despite ongoing and multiple initiatives to assist the growth of their congregations in the PCUSA, find their numbers static during the last number of GA cycles.  Our minorities are patient.

Another virtue of our discipleship is Reverence. Learning that the Torah is designed to instill proper fear and respect for the universal deity who is sovereign over all the king’s people, the disciple is a servant of that God and a servant of the king’s people.

The numerous worship opportunities and breaks at GA displayed our mindfulness and reverence for our Creator, Lord and Savior. Our worship service last Sunday was most magnificent, reverent and joyous, almost filling two large stadiums with the Spirit and with the Love of our denomination.

Fifth, there is the virtue of Loyalty. Fidelity to Torah, and the recognition of such by outsiders and insiders alike breeds confidence in the loyalty of the disciple to the king’s subjects, rather than leading to suspicions that he or she might “sell out” the king’s subjects to ensure his or her own security or luxury.

As you may know, our by turns reviled and respected Stated Clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, retired at this assembly to ecumenical duties and teaching.  He was subject at GA to repeated honors and genuine feelings of respect.  Our denomination aspires to loyalty for its hard working disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, there is the virtue of Unselfishness.  A disciple born to such a role must be focused on his neighbor/subjects, placing their needs first.  In the GA committee which I was assigned to observe, Social Justice, I was heartened by the intention of commissioner disciples to truly hear each others’ words and opinions.

They were disciples of unselfishness.

 Seventh, there is for disciples the virtue of Recollection. This virtue of the king and his disciple recalls God’s goodness promised in the blessings of the Torah that underlies the covenant renewal ceremony at the end of Deuteronomy. At GA, the celebration of communion was recollected at the end of the very contentious Church Orders committee that made authoritative the Peace, Unity and Purity report’s local option for ordination as well as proposing the deletion from the Book of Order the controversial “fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness” provision, G-6.0106b.  The Peace, Unity, and Purity report of the previous General Assembly was recollected repeatedly at this GA and its influence appears to me to be growing year by year.

Finally, there is the virtue of Justice before God.  The disciple, like the king, is established by divine election and is vindicated on the earth by God.   At GA, we saw numerous initiatives promoting mission and evangelism that is intended to widen the circle of the faithful:  “Deep and wide” was the slogan of many of such initiatives.  The implication of that slogan was that the depth of our discipleship and virtue witnesses to others, to lead them into our church, widening our membership.  It is our conduct as the elect of God that either draws in observers or repulses them. 

The GA committee on Church Growth and Christian Education especially struggled with this relationship of “Deep and wide.”

 

[In Conclusion:] Much of our understanding of the word “king” involves hierarchical assumptions that are contrary to the New Testament encounter with the self-giving servant king. The New Testament is a story of a man who lived wholly for others, all the way to death. He has risen, so that his self-giving will eventually fully triumph.

            Yet throughout history, the forgiving power and virtue of Christ has been kept transcendent behind the closed doors of the church so that the worldly emperor could pursue dynastic agendas and rivalries. These rivalries allow the worldly power to augment harems and the means of warfare.

But as we have seen, the Perfect Kingship of the New Testament Christ is based on virtues that democratize the power of self-giving and give witness to the representative nature of kingship. This is opposed to making Christ’s power transcendent and inaccessible.  

Disciples, as we all are, disciples of the perfect representative of virtue act as ambassadors not for rivals but for the self-giving power. They act to allow that self-giving to triumph here on earth by acting out virtue in their daily living.  They live for justice and for exemplifying the wholeness of redemption in the here and now.

Let us be thankful for examples of self-giving power that even babies—maybe especially babies--can intuit.  Though we forget those intuitions as we pursue our own adult agendas, may we re-learn day by day those disciplines of self-giving, those virtues of the self-giving King who makes us a promise of resurrection power upon which we can rely today. 

Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

 



[1] Hamlin, J.K., Wynn, K, and Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature 450, 557-559 (22 November 2007).

 

[2] “Reflecting on the Mind,” Nature 452, April 17, 2008, pp. 813-5, specifically commenting on the book Mirrors in the Brain by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia (Oxford University Press, 2007).