Don’t aim to please

Monday, July 8, 2013 — Week of Proper 6, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 974)

Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening)

1 Samuel 15:1-3, 7-23

Acts 9:19b-31

Luke 23:44-56a

It feels tragically ironic to read Psalm 2 alongside our first Scripture passage. Psalm 2, one of the “royal psalms,” was possibly used as a coronation hymn. Yet our reading from 1 Samuel is very far from celebrating a new king.

The passage describes the downfalls of two kings, starting with King Agag of the Amalekites. Saul and his army destroy the Amalekite people and their property, believing that they are punishing the Amalekites on behalf of the Lord. They spare Agag for the moment, but his death is only a few verses away.

Saul, for his part, is also about to end his reign in disaster. Samuel announces to Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”

The Scriptural record doesn’t exactly give us a straight story to explain Saul’s rejection. In his leadership, Saul does display some mistrust, impatience, arrogance, self-righteousness, and disobedience. His root problem, though, is with aiming to please . . . and misfiring.

In the first story of Saul’s rejection, Saul was trying to keep his people from slipping away just before a battle with the Philistines. Saul was supposed to wait seven days for Samuel to come prepare a burnt offering, but Saul panicked and performed the offering himself. He tried to please God with a sacrifice; he tried to soothe his trembling people. Samuel was not impressed, and he told Saul, “The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue” (1 Sam 13:13-14).

Today’s reading is an alternative but similar account of Saul’s rejection for presuming to know how to please God. In this version, Saul doesn’t offer the sacrifice from impatience and fear. Rather, Saul is overconfident. Instead of following God’s instructions to utterly destroy the Amalekites, Saul keeps the prime spoils to offer as a sacrifice to God. But Samuel rebukes Saul, asking, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” Saul completely misunderstands how to please God, offering a fine sacrifice but withholding his own heart and will.

We get a fuller explanation for Saul’s poor judgment in tomorrow’s reading. Saul claims that he disobeyed God “because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam 15:24). Apparently, people were able to deter Saul from his sense of mission, and he thought that God would understand or at least be appeased with some valuable livestock.

It seems as if Saul is following a distorted version of the two great commandments. Instead of discovering how to love God with his whole being and to love other people, Saul is devising schemes to please God and please people. How easy it is to disobey God’s commandments—not so much by outright disobedience as by distortion. The primary commandments to love God and love our neighbor are sometimes confused with our misguided and cowardly efforts to please.

Saul’s difficulties in staying true to God’s desires make me question even his confidence that destroying the Amalekites completely would have pleased God.

When we are tempted to please God and to please people, we should try to recall what God desires most. Samuel gives us a clue in his first rejection speech, telling Saul that “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). Instead of aiming to please and misfiring, we can seek instead to set our sights on the fierce and faithful heart of God. The pursuit of God’s heart is what keeps us right on target, day after day.

Inspired as a child by Maria Von Trapp, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus, Lora Walsh strives for wisdom, justice, and a simpler way.  She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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