1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

Not Like the Other Nations

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1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

Not Like the Other Nations

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

For eight Sundays this summer,
June xx through August xx,
our first readings will be
stories from the life of David,
the outstanding king of ancient Israel.

Today’s first reading
serves as a preface
to this series of David stories.
It explains how the monarchy originates
in a crisis around Samuel and his sons.

Samuel is not a king,
but has served many years
as the leader of the nation.
He arranges for his sons Joel and Abijah to succeed him,
but the people reject them,
for the sons have proved themselves unworthy.
Joel and Abijah did not follow their father’s example,
but as scripture tells us,
they “turned aside after gain;
they took bribes and perverted justice.” 1

And so the elders of Israel
visit Samuel in his home town.
They ask him
to appoint a king as his successor.
They want to have a king rule over them
like other nations do.

This request displeases Samuel.
He prays to the Lord about it.
The Lord tells Samuel
to let the people have what they want.
This request for a king,
the Lord says,
is not a rejection of Samuel
but a rejection of the Lord himself
as their king.
The people have repeatedly rejected the Lord
since he delivered them from Egypt.
They keep forsaking him
by serving other gods instead.
This demand for a human king
is nothing new.

The Lord also tells Samuel
to explain to the people
the ways of a king
so that they will know the trouble
they are setting themselves up for.
Samuel describes to the people
eloquently and in detail
how their king will dominate them,
but they reject this warning.
“No!” the people insist.
“We are determined to have a king over us,
so that we may be like other nations.”


The people tell Samuel
they want to be “like other nations.”
They do not want to stand out.
They want to be normal.
This is their great temptation as a people.

Wanting to be normal
can also be a personal temptation.
Often it is our temptation:
not to stand out,
but to be like everybody else.

Sometimes the desire to be normal
is acceptable, even commendable.
When walking outside in a rainstorm,
it’s normal to have an umbrella.
In this society, it’s normal
to brush one’s teeth
at least once a day.

But sometimes the normal
can be contrary to the will of God.
What’s popular can be unjust.

Sometimes the normal
can be simply an illusion.
Everybody seems that way,
but in fact no one is that way.

We must be very careful
when we wish to be like everybody else.
The normal can become a slippery,
evasive standard.
It can mean entrusting ourselves
to what does not deserve our trust.

The people tell Samuel
that they want to be like other nations.
But what convinces them
that the other nations are right?
As it turns out,
they will be oppressed
by the monarchy they are demanding.


The personal temptation
of wanting to be like other nations,
the temptation of wanting too much
to be normal,
appears in a landmark study of American character
entitled The Lonely Crowd. 2

The authors of this work posit
three main cultural types:
tradition-directed, inner-directed,
and other-directed.

• The tradition-directed
obey long-established rules.

• The inner-directed
use their own interior gyroscope.

• The other-directed
are not necessarily altruistic.
What they do is define themselves
by the way other people live.

Other-directed people are flexible
and willing to accommodate others
to gain approval.
They want to be emotionally in tune
with the people around them.

Other-directed people
do well in large organizations;
they can be cheerful personnel.
This type has become very popular
in our society.

Having a preponderance
of other-directed types in society
means that there are fewer people
who transmit tradition
or use their interior gyroscope.

The other-directed depend on others
to gain an approach to living.
To that extent
they are restricted in their ability
to know themselves;
their autonomy is compromised.

The authors of The Lonely Crowd conclude
that a society dominated by the other-directed
faces profound deficiencies
in individual self-knowledge,
human potential, and leadership.

Maybe too many of us go too far
in living other-directed lives.
We want to be like other nations,
we want to be like other people
to the extent
that we shun the challenge
of accepting God as our liberator
and our true sovereign.

Yet it is only through cooperation with God
that we can become our true selves.
And only to the extent
that we can become our true selves
by God’s grace
can we make our distinctive contribution
to the common good.
We must learn from others, yes,
but we must also heed living tradition
and our interior gyroscope
as well as what wisdom we can glean
from the people around us.
God speaks through all these channels
and others also,
but only as we recognize his kingship.


In today’s gospel,
Jesus is causing trouble.
Crowds are attracted to him.
His family thinks he’s gone crazy.
Religious authorities condemn him
as in league with the devil.

In the midst of this hubbub,
he tosses out a short parable:
“No one can enter a strong man’s house
and plunder his property
without first tying up the strong man;
then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Jesus presents himself here
as a burglar!
He ties up the strong man,
enters his house,
and plunders his property.

Perhaps in our time
the strong man that Jesus ties up
is our excessive other-directedness,
our personal desire to be like other people,
the way our society constitutes a lonely crowd
and not an engaged community.
Thus he sets us free.

We’ve heard a warning from Samuel
and a parable from Jesus.
Let’s close with a further piece of Jewish wisdom,
this story about an eighteenth century luminary,
Rabbi Zusya.

“Lying on his death bed,
Rabbi Zusya was very upset and crying,
tears streaming down his face.

“His students asked with great concern,
‘Rabbi, why are you upset?
Why are you crying?
Are you afraid when you die
that you will be asked
why you were not more like Moses?’

“Rabbi Zusya replied,
“I am not afraid that the Holy One will ask me
‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’
Rather, I fear that the Holy One will say,
‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’”

1. 1 Samuel 8:3.

2. Davis Riesman, Nathan Glazer, Reuel Denny, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character.  Revised ed.  Yale University Press, 2001.

Copyright 2012, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.