From 1913 to 1938, a famous cartoon strip ran in US papers called “Keeping up with the Jones”. It featured the antics of the McGinnis family, mom, dad and daughter, along with their black maid Bella Donna, who are always comparing themselves to their elusive neighbors the Jones, who always seemed one step ahead of them. The comic series taped into a deep drive of the human psyche – to constantly measure ourselves to others, to never feel like we have enough, to try to get ahead, be the one on top. As a result “Keeping up with the Jones” is a common phrase in our vocabulary. There are video games, songs, a movie named after it; even a revised reality TV series of 20 years called “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” featuring the well-coiffed, potty mouthed, super affluent Kardashian/Jenner clan as the latest family to measure ourselves against. Renowned country-western singer Johnny Paycheck epitomized the dangerous results of trying to keep up with the Jones in this song: Let’s listen toa stanza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urP5lr5yMTE&list=RDurP5lr5yMTE&start_radio=1. You can tune in to youtube to hear the rest of the song!
The people of Israel had their own version of this social scourge known as: “Keeping up with the Philistines, or Amorites, or whoever was invading the borders that year.” Israel was created to be a Theocracy, meaning that God was the ultimate ruler and caregiver and protector of the people. God created a covenant with the people, they were to put God first, obey the law and God would take care of them. From the get-go there were problems with this plan. The people constantly rebelled and compared themselves to other nations. Even after escaping 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they quickly whined about their abundant food in Egypt, compared to the bread and manna they received in the wilderness. Once in the promised land, God faithfully raised up judges for them to care for them in times of attacks from their neighbors. No matter how many times the people sinned, God was merciful to raise up help for them. Yet this wasn’t enough.
According to our Hebrew lesson today, the people noted that Samuel, the judge, prophet seer, was getting old. Furthermore, the sons Samuel appointed as judges-- without God’s approval by the way --Joel and Abijah, were not righteous men. The people clamored instead for a king, to be like all the nations.
The request in and of itself was reasonable. God said that both Abraham and Jacob would have kings descend from them. The law in Deuteronomy makes provisions for the kings that God would appoint and what their character should be like. The problem here is the people of Israel’s motives are not pure. They do not ask for a King who would lead them more closely in the ways of the Lord. They do not inquire if it is God’s will at this time to send them a king. They text is clear: they demand that Samuel -not God- give them a King. This comes after battles with the Mesopotamians, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Canaanites, the Midianites, the Ammonites the Philistines, (all battles which God fought on their behalf). Although God had a good track record in caring for them, yet their hearts yearned for the trappings they saw in their neighbors/rivals. They too wanted the prestige the figurehead of a king provided: a nice palace, a court, a ready to roll army. The Israelites were the new kids on the block so they wanted to prove themselves – not by God’s standards – but with the human standards they saw around them. They want to be like everyone else. Just like the Jones.
As Samuel prays to God about this quandary, it is clear to God that this request is a rejection of God’s kingship over the people. Even so, he directs Samuel to honor the request. Trying to be like other nations would be a disastrous move. By the end of the reign of King Solomon, the second king on the united throne, the rivalries among God’s people grew so intense that they divided into two kingdoms: The kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel. 12 out of 20 kings of the Kingdom of Judah were bad. Of the 19 kings of Israel, all were bad – some bible scholars say perhaps 5 were righteous. Both kingdoms would end up defeated and destroyed by foreign invaders, occupied by other nation’s armies until the time of Christ and beyond. In fact, Israel did not exist as an independent state except for a few years here and there from the 6th BC until the 20th century. Such was the devastating consequence of wanting to be like other nations. Yet God worked through this disastrous decision and never abandoned God’s people.
In our gospel reading from Mark, we see a similar dynamic at work, but on the family level. Jesus has given up all the respectable things families seek after: decent income and a respectable standing in the community. Yet it seems that Jesus gave up his career as a carpenter. He has also stirred up the wrath of the authorities, endangering his life and potentially that of his family’s. Further, he has chosen to go against the norms of society by becoming an itinerant preacher. Jesus seeks to follow God’s will, God’s timing in all matter. Jesus declares that our true families are those forged by the spirit, according to God’s doing.
Who are we trying to keep up with at the detriment of our soul’s health? What family or social ties do we place over our loyalty with God? This is a dicey concept. God isn’t saying don’t love our families or not to honor our parents. Don’t seek leadership. Don’t seek a good life. It’s just that our duty to God comes first. Because the people of Israel wanted to be like other nations, they paid the price and are still in conflict to this day.
Who are the Jones or Kardashians we seek to emulate? Supermodels? The wealthy? Professional athletes? Our affluent neighbor who manages to keep his flowerbed blooming and his lawn immaculately trimmed and a late model car in the driveway? Do we measure our kids against Ivy league standards? Our texts today are reminders that our hearts will always be wandering, always restless, nothing will satisfy, unless we are rooted and grounded in God. So today, let us turn our hearts first to God, seeking his sovereignty in our lives. The scripture remind us that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful. (Rev. 17:14). So farewell Jones. Farewell Kardashians. Farewell neighbors who seem to have it all. Hello King Jesus, Hello chosen and faithful ones who seek Keeping up with Jesus first. Amen.