Thursday, March 01, 2007

Take Care for What You Wish

In 1902 W. W. Jacobs published the short story The Monkey’s Paw. It is a horrific little story of three wishes gone awry. An old man and woman receive a mummified little monkey’s paw which is supposed to grant three wishes. They jokingly wish for 200 pounds (roughly $20,000 in today’s currency). Their son, that very day is killed in a horrible machinery accident that rips his body to shreds. The people at work collect money for the family: 200 pounds. The funeral is closed casket—the father is the only one in the family who saw the body. He could not identify him except for a scrap of clothing on him.

After the funeral, the old woman frantically begs her husband to wish her son back to life. With great reluctance he does. But when the son doesn’t appear they assume it really didn’t grant wishes. But then the woman remembers the son would have to walk from his grave. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The woman cannot reach the latch and the husband won’t open it. It dawns on him what is on the other side of the door is a mangled, unrecognizable corpse brought back to life. Frantically he searches for the paw as his wife grabs a chair so she can reach the latch. At the same moment she is able to unlatch the door he finds the paw and makes his final wish. His wife’s wail of disappointment tells him his wish was granted.

You have to be careful what you wish for, for you may get it! In 1 Samuel 8 we have a story about a wish made and a wish granted—with great reluctance. Samuel has grown old. He has served as Israel’s military, civil, and spiritual leader for years. The Philistines have been held at bay. He has made his two sons leaders to share the load. They served at least fifty miles away. However, they turned out to be less than ideal candidates for service. Samuel was not judged as harshly as his predecessor, Eli. Probably because Eli had more direct contact with his sons—they served with him in Shiloh. Also, we do not see Eli truly acting as a shepherd or leader in Israel. Samuel, clearly has given his life in service to Israel.

Even so, Samuel is old. The elders of Israel come to him in 1 Samuel 8:5 and they say to him: You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways: now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have. It becomes immediately clear Samuel is very upset with their request. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised he was personally stung by their request. Perhaps he remembered his own experiences with Eli. But he was no Eli. He was also upset because he perceived this was both a rejection of his leadership and of God’s leadership. God confirms this and even tells Samuel, it is not really a rejection of Samuel as much as it is a personal rejection of God. Up until this point there was no dynasty, no standing army, no palaces or capitals. This was a tribal theocracy. God was the ruler. When the need arose, God selected a military leader to rally the people and liberate the nation. It actually worked quite well. But now the people wanted a king.

Don’t you just love the logic of their request? “Samuel, you’re getting old, and your sons are not the kind of men you are. We don’t want judges any more. Even though judges don’t have dynasties, they are selected by God and only when there is a need. So we want you to select a king who will leave a dynasty we have to accept (good men or not). He will even have the power to tax us and conscript our children as his servants. We think that’s a better way.”

What is strange about this incident is God’s displeasure over the request. Now, why would I say that? Because from very early in the Hebrew Scriptures there is strong indication God intended to set up a monarchy in Israel. God tells Abraham, the Ancestor of the Israelites: I will make you very fruitful: I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.[1] At the end of Genesis, Jacob, in a prophetic blessing, tells his son Judah: The Scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff fro between his feet until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.[2] So why are Samuel and God so upset?

There is more to this story than what meets the eye. The issue is not so much the wisdom of having a king. It seems God intended the monarchy to exist early on. However, the motivation of the Israelites may give us a clue. At the end of chapter eight we receive a little more insight into their thought process as they say: We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us to fight our battles. Still, this isn’t the full picture. Four chapters later in 1 Samuel 12 we receive even a better understanding of their motives from Samuel’s mouth when he says to Israel: When you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’—even though the LORD your God was you king.

Now consider this: Israel already has a divinely appointed military ruler in Samuel. Yes, his sons aren’t the cream of the crop, but judges are not dynastic. They are God appointed. Israel is getting nervous because of the threat posed by the Ammonites. Also, they appear to want a king not in order to further God’s agenda, but to further their own desires for protection. We want to be like other nations, we’re not certain we can trust God’s direction here. We want someone else who will lead us and who will fight our battles.

God has Samuel warn the people the problems a king will bring: he will tax the people, he will conscript their children to his service, and one day you will cry out to be delivered from you kings—but God will not listen. Samuel delivers the message—the people respond petulantly: No! We want a king anyway! And God says Ok, give them what they want.

So what do we make of this story? I think the first thing we notice is it is possible to want what God wants but for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. It is clear from earlier passages God was raising up a king from the tribe of Judah—David. But at this time, David is probably not even born. So a second-best-fill-in will have to be chosen. So it’s the wrong time and the wrong motives: a lack of trust of God and a desire to be like everyone else. The second thing we notice is it is possible God will grant his people’s wishes, even though it’s not the best thing and allow them to suffer the consequences.

Is there anything in this story for us? Does our story intersect this story? I think it may. We’ve been talking about a need for renewal, a need to rethink our priorities, and a need to change in order to be more faithful to God’s purposes. But such calls must always be approached very seriously and thoughtfully. I have to look seriously at my own motives. Do my requests represent a desire to accomplish God’s agenda—or my own desires for my own preferences? Do my requests represent trust or distrust in God? If I just have this program or if I can just have my way in this area then the technique or the thing itself will accomplish what I want. That is putting trust in a technique or an approach rather than in God. Listen carefully: I can actually want something God wants—but for the wrong reason.

Sounds like a catch-22, doesn’t it? What do we do? First and foremost, we commit everything to serious prayer—asking God’s guidance and his wisdom. Secondly, we examine our own motives. Why do I want what I want? Can I look deep below the surface of my own motivations? Thirdly, confess any improper motivations or lack of trust in God. Finally, discuss and listen to each other with this thought in mind: How can we honor God? How can we further his agenda?

Magic wishes are dangerous things. They usually come back around and bite you. We don’t need a monkey’s paw. We don’t need to dictate to God what to do, either. But we need to search out his desire and his agenda and live accordingly.

So may you learn to trust God. May you learn to examine your motives with purity of heart and a desire to further his agenda in this world. And may you learn to wish only for the things he wishes and with pure motives.

[1] Genesis 17:6, 7
[2] Genesis 49:10

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