Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to 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. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”1 Samuel 8:4-20 (NRSV)
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 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 courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-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.”
Israel’s Request for a King Granted
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.1 Samuel 11:14-15 (NRSV)
I wonder, have you ever heard the phrase “the grass is always greener?” As human beings, we often think that what we have isn’t as good as what others have. Other people’s kids are more well-behaved than ours. Our friends are more successful. Their bosses are nicer and more understanding. Their houses are cleaner. Their bank accounts are bigger. And yes, their grass is indeed greener.
But this phenomenon does not only happen with individual people; it also happens in our churches. We tend to worry that our pews are not as full as the church down the street, nor are our offering plates. Their choir is amazing. Their church school is top-notch. They have a big expansive and creative staff, and all their parishioners always pitch in to help.
But it is not just people and churches that fall into the comparison trap. Communities do too. Other school systems are more supported and well run. Other towns handle their money better and offer more community-wide programming. Even their holiday parades and downtown decorations are more inviting.
And it’s not just us, and our churches, and our communities; this longing is not something new. We are even told about it in stories from the Bible as well–stories that happened thousands of years ago!
In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a story about a man named Samuel. Now Samuel was not a king, but he was a great leader for the people in Israel. You see, at the time, Israel did not have a king; they had prophets and judges, like Samuel. So, when someone had a problem, they would go to Samuel. Samuel would pray to God and listen for an answer, then Samuel would offer a fair solution. Well, as Samuel got older, some of the elders in the community went to Samuel and said, “You’re growing old, and we need to plan for the future. All of the other countries have kings to rule over them and we want a king too.” Well, this hurt Samuel’s feelings, so he went and prayed to God. God answered Samuel saying, “Right now, I’m the ruler, and I am fair and just. If they choose a king like other countries, that person might not be fair and might not make good decisions. Warn them of this Samuel, but also know that they need to make their own decisions.” Samuel told the people what God had said, but they didn’t care because they wanted to be like
all the other countries. So, Samuel anointed Saul to be their king.
Okay, so what did we learn from this story? We learned that the people whined and complained and wanted something different, and though God and Samuel didn’t agree with them, they let them make their own decision. The people got what they wanted. Saul became the new ruler, and the people celebrated, but in the end, it didn’t work out as well as they’d hoped. Saul was not a good king, and he made lots and lots of mistakes.
Friends, sometimes we think we know what we want. Sometimes we look at what others are doing or what other people have, and we think that it’s better than what we’re doing or what we have. But the truth is comparing ourselves to others never works because we’re not the same. As individuals, as churches, and as communities, we are all created differently. And that’s a good thing, because we all have different gifts and abilities to share. We’re not supposed to look the same and be the same; that would defeat the purpose!
And you know what? Even if we worked hard to be just like our neighbor, or just like the church down the street, or just like a successful community we’ve seen on the news, we wouldn’t be happy because trying to be something that you’re not never works.
The people of Israel back in Samuel’s day did not realize the gift that they had. They didn’t realize how blessed they were to have God guiding them. So, they chose to crown a king because they thought it would make them appear stronger and more put together. But as we heard, in the end, it didn’t work the way they thought it would.
Friends, next time you long for something that someone else has, or you find yourself comparing where you are to where someone else is, or your neighbor’s green grass to your field of weeds, I’d encourage you to take a walk outside and find somewhere to sit. And then, rather than worrying about what everyone else has and how your life would be better if it was more like theirs, stop and listen. Don’t worry or compare or judge yourself. Just stop, and breathe, and listen because just as God was there to lead the people in Samuel’s day, God’s still-speaking voice can still be heard today. And if we listen closely and we allow God to guide us, we just might begin to realize that our grass is actually greener than we thought it was.