Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On choosing rulers

The first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week comes from 1 Samuel, chapter 8.

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Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, "Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations." But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." And Samuel prayed to the LORD.

And the LORD said to Samuel, "Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."

So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 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."

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 all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles."

— 1 Samuel 8:4-20 (ESV), emphasis mine

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One of the recent events that has been taking the country by storm is the controversy surrounding the spending of half a million Malaysian ringgit on three letters and a number. It is something that might be seen as a 'reverse 4D jackpot', in which, contrary to the custom of submitting numbers in faint hopes of landing a substantial wad of cash, the 'winner' this time splurged that very sum of money in return for the numbers.

There have been arguments on both sides, for and against the said action. The way I see it, such wanton spending is, in principle, wasteful and wrong. But then that is what the rulers of this world are entitled to do—have we not seen this pattern repeated throughout history, from the Pharaohs of Egypt to the Queen of Sheba, from Solomon to the Caesars of Rome, from the royal houses of Europe to the tribal lords of Africa, normal human beings elevated to an embarrassing and totally undeserved level of opulence?

Perhaps there is an answer in today's reading of Scripture.

We find that God had indeed warned of the consequences of appointing human rulers in the place of God. Today, we oppose such 'unfair' practices in the name of some virtues like 'democracy', 'equality' and 'human rights'. But we have not addressed the issue at heart, which is the rejection of God as supreme ruler of our lives. Contrary to the Levitical command to "be holy, as [God] is holy," the people instead chose to be "like all the nations"—they exchanged a unique consecration in order to be just like everyone else.

The Son has come to set us free, but we have instead chosen the path of slavery. Enslaved not to kings and rulers, but to our confidence in our own abilities, our assurance in our independence; enslaved to a life free from God.

We have overthrown kings and replaced them with bureaucratic governments. They come in different shapes and sizes: communists, democrats, fascists, conservatives, liberals, what have you. As my friend Kang says, and I loosely apply the quote here, "Different shirts, same shit." And even where we think we have gone beyond the confines of such forms of government, we yet again enslave ourselves to other superpowers like the 'private sector' and 'corporations'. At the centre of all of this is a preoccupation with ourselves, our rights, and our welfare.

But the Bible is clear on where the Christian is to stand in all of this. Mr Lian said as much, time and again during Bible study in years past: "The Christian relinquishes his rights." When Jesus said, "No student is greater than his teacher," he surely meant that the follower of Christ should not expect to be treated better, or any differently, than the Christ—else why follow him?

Do I have a stand on the numbers-and-letter issue? Of course I do. But we need to open our eyes to the bigger issues at stake, to the bigger picture of the way in which we are living our lives. If our desire is to be 'like the world', then the verdict of Christ is unflinching: "You have your reward in full." What reward do we seek, then? The answer to this may better point us in the path we ought to walk.

We are governed, like it or not, by rulers, whether within or without, human or otherwise. Who are our rulers, and who is our Ruler?

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