Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? … Why did you not obey the LORD?” (1 Samuel 15.17-19)
NOTE: We typically distance our discussions here from current controversies. Today's post is an exception in an attempt to ground our thinking about the present crisis in Rome. It is longer than usual, yet woefully inadequate in many ways. I ask you read it prayerfully.
The Terrors of Trust
Trust is a powerful thing. Confidence in parents or leaders, pastors or supervisors makes all the difference in our lives; it’s the medium through which we learn and prosper. Only when we reach positions of leadership and respect do we discover the terrors of trust. They riddle us with dread of misguiding those who look to us. Opportunities for failure abound. So, while experience, expertise, and willingness earn trust, maintaining it hinges on our ability to put those who trust us first and our personal needs and longings last. This is a terrifying prospect, because it begs the question “Can I be trusted?” Furthermore, damage caused by broken trust is directly proportional to its perceived value. Some avocations—parenthood, life partnership, teaching, political office, faith formation, etc.—are deemed sacrosanct. We presume people in these positions will cherish our trust above their interests. Thankfully, the vast majority of them do, which is why honored trust isn’t as remarkable as broken trust, because what is “history” if not one continuous saga of abused power? What is “scandal” if not bad faith’s showcase? And, since we’ve learned nothing from the past, today’s news is overrun with people reputed to be trustworthy who prove they’re not. None of these is more troubling than the faith crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church. It grieves all of us—Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers—in its galvanizing depiction of exalted leaders wedged between honoring trust and protecting interests. It’s an ancient drama, one we see play out in the life of Israel’s first king. A review of Saul’s story provides some valuable insights into what happens when shepherds stray.
The Evolution of Leadership
To reap the full benefit of Saul’s lesson, we must retrace the evolution of leadership in Israel. While God knows Israel will eventually ask for a king, this isn’t His intention. His plan calls for a tribal government guided by a chief prophet who voices God’s concerns and desires. Judges mediate local matters in accordance to divine law and military leaders serve on an ad hoc basis per the prophet’s orders. Israel’s neighbors are all absolute monarchies, whose successions are predominately determined by internal power struggles—a collection of nations ruled by warrior kings. Leadership by brute force and its corollary—divide and conquer—are anathema to God’s organic approach to nurture Israel as a people unto Himself. But Israel’s people become convinced they also need a king. This wounds Samuel, the most exemplary prophet the Old Testament offers. God consoles him, saying, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8.6) He sets down very specific duties and rights for the king, which Samuel publishes, along with this warning: “You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (v18) Nonetheless, Israel insists.
God vests the monarch with full administrative and judicial power over the realm, yet—unlike neighboring rulers—Israel’s king remains beholden to Him and His prophet. In this respect, the monarchy functions closer to a pastoral position than a seat of power. To underscore the king’s third rank, God selects a candidate, Saul, from the smallest tribe, Benjamin. This not only obviates any infighting and coalitions among the larger tribes, it signifies a certain disdain for the position in God’s sight. Saul, we’re told in 1 Samuel 9.2, is “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others,” which makes him a big guy without big tribal backing. He’s perfect. To win the people’s trust, he’s endowed with prophetic gifts and leadership talent. The Israelites hail their new king with gusto. Then things start falling apart. Saul’s power and status overwhelm him. He stops listening to God’s direction and starts making decisions to protect his rule. When he forgets whence he came, he strays.
Things come to a head when Saul disobeys God’s order to rout Israel’s longtime foes, the Amalekites, down to the last beast. But he returns from battle with a herd of trophy cattle. Though he knows it’s wrong, he tries to spin his decision as obedient by sacrificing the livestock in worship. In return, God says, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Samuel 15.10) Hoping his war spoils will ratify the nation’s trust in him, Saul loses faith with God. In 1 Samuel 16.14, we read one of Scripture’s most tragic verses: “Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” The pastoral instincts are gone, replaced by a plague of ruinous doubts and jealousies. Saul eventually dies at his own hand. He’s succeeded by David, a shepherd so deeply flawed he has no choice but to trust God’s guidance and protection. And even though he also makes grievous mistakes, he remains honest before his Maker and God repays his humility by exalting him as the greatest leader in his nation’s history.
The Vatican’s current crisis shakes us because it evidences broken pastoral trust on so many levels. Everywhere we look, we seem to find shepherds who’ve strayed. At the root of the problem are the reckless men who placed their personal desires above their priestly vows and their parishioners’ faith. We see people tormented by small beginnings taking advantage of their prominence. As we wrestle with our own feelings about them—and the issues multiplied from their misdeeds—it’s important to anchor our thoughts with a clear understanding of what their malfeasance represents. Sexual abuse of every kind is not about physical gratification; it’s a heinous leverage of power by individuals burdened by a sense of worthlessness. As such, the responsibility to end similar abuses—not only in the church, but also in the home, classroom, workplace, and elsewhere—falls to us. Belittling anyone is not acceptable. Beyond the effect it has on those we diminish and us, it spreads our evildoing to innocent lives.
Thus, while we watch in horror as pastors we trust fail to respond quickly, effectively, and unilaterally against this pervasive sin (which plagues all communions, not only the Roman Catholic one), we must realize this is a reckoning for the entire Body of Christ. We call for kings. We construct thrones. We cede power and trust. God’s plan for the Church is no different than His design for Israel. He grants our request for self-government, but reserves governance to Himself. Pastoral leadership, from the Pope down to the illiterate storefront preacher, is the Church’s underpinning, not its pinnacle. When Christ ordains Peter, He says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16.18) We see the pastoral imperative in action as Paul writes in Romans 1.11: “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” We hear this note repeatedly in the epistles—making strong. The show of strength the Roman church presently seeks will only come when its leaders forsake their ambitions to honor their followers’ trust, when their sights return to the rock and their minds leave the clouds. Every pastor from every denomination must follow this prescription lest he/she stray. Every believer should do likewise.
The visibility of their errors doesn’t relieve our duty to listen to our true Shepherd. God is speaking to us. We are dealing with our misplaced trust in kings. We are reaping unjust and inadequate responses to problems we as a society created and then ignored. When shepherds stray, the sheep have two alternatives: bleat with alarm or repent themselves and return to the right way. In 2 Chronicles 7.14, God vows, “If my people, who are called my by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (v14) The onus is on us. We can’t foresee whether or not the shepherds who’ve strayed will reawaken to their duties. They may go the way of Saul and destroy themselves. Right now, in the absence of shepherds, our prayers must attend to the flock. Our trust in God remains, and must always remain, sound.
When our shepherds stray, we are all called to a reckoning. We are all responsible for the losses and confusion that result in broken trust.