The Deafness of Self-Justification
THE DEAFNESS OF SELF-JUSTIFICATION
Scriptures: I Samuel 15:1-9, 10-23
I knew when we started this program of reading 365 Bible
Stories that I would end up on some Sundays preaching about Bible stories I did not like. This is one of them. I have never before preached on this Bible story, for reasons you can probably guess. We have talked before about the horrifying stories in the Old Testament where God commands Israel to wipe out its enemies. As I said in a previous sermon, this is not the last word in the Bible on how God wants us to treat our enemies. Later on in the Bible we will read some radically new thoughts about how God wants us to treat enemies.
In the meantime, however, it should be noted that back in Exodus 17
the Amalekites had tried to destroy the Israelites when they first came out of Egypt. You could say that this war against the Amalekites is kind of like the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II, a drastic measure to stop the Nazi holocaust.
But there is a key detail in this story. King Saul is commanded not
only to destroy all the Amalekites but also their livestock, all their cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys. Why? So that Israel will not profit from this terrible war. If the Amalekites have to be destroyed in order to stop them from doing evil, like the Nazis in World War II, then Israel must not profit from their defeat. The Israelites are not to make themselves rich off this war.
That is the key to understanding what happens next. This is
not finally a story about war; it's a story about a king who does not listen. [Read I Samuel 15:10-23]
People have an almost infinite capacity to justify
themselves, especially when it comes to car accidents. A while back I read some explanations that people give for their car accidents on insurance forms. Here are some examples:
Coming home I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I don't have.
As I approached an intersection a sign suddenly appeared in a place where no stop sign had ever appeared before.
My car was legally parked as it backed into another vehicle.
The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.
I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law, and headed over the embankment.
King Saul was all about self-justification. Notice the conversation. He comes back from the battle flush with a sense of triumph and says to Samuel, "I have carried out the command of the Lord." Samuel says, "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?" Saul says, "Oh that, well that is the best of the cattle and sheep that I have brought back for an offering to the Lord."
I have some doubts about this. At the time Saul and the people spared the most valuable sheep and cattle, no one says anything about offering them as a sacrifice to the Lord. In fact in verse 12 we are told that Saul went up to Mt. Carmel where he set up a monument to himself. It says nothing about Saul building an altar to the Lord to offer a sacrifice; he builds a monument to himself, perhaps intending to use some of the sheep and cattle to pay his workers.
Samuel will have nothing of this rationalization. He says to Saul, "Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?" Saul then changes his rationalization. He says in verse 21, "But from the spoil the people [my emphasis] took the sheep and cattle, the best of things devoted to destruction." I was just going along with the people!
When I thought about Saul's efforts at self-justification, I thought about an interview I saw of David Frost with former president Richard Nixon about three years after Nixon resigned from the White House following the Watergate affair. For those who need a quick reminder: in 1972 five burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D. C. They were after files or information that might be valuable to defeating or discrediting Democratic candidates. It was suspected right away that they had been hired by someone. Then it was discovered that money had been delivered to these burglars to buy their silence about who had hired them. After that, the scandal snowballed, because now it became a matter of obstruction of justice: Who ordered this break-in? Who paid the hush money? Who knew about it and was involved in covering it up?
In this interview David Frost confronts Richard Nixon with his role in the cover-up, particularly how Nixon tried to protect Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, and some of his top aides by telling the FBI to stop their investigation. Here is a segment of the interview:
[Play Frost/Nixon: the Original Watergate Interview, 12:48-16:20]
I was struck by the similarity of that conversation to the
conversation between Samuel and Saul. Saul appeals to his motive: "I was just trying to bring something back for a sacrifice to the Lord." But Samuel says, "You disobeyed the Lord's command. You weren't listening."
That's the problem. When we get caught up in justifying
ourselves, we quit listening. When we get wrapped up in defending ourselves, we no longer hear what others are trying to tell us, what God is trying to tell us.
By the way, lest we think that Richard Nixon was the only
president with this problem, I recall some of the self-justifications made by Bill Clinton after the affair with Monica Lewinski. At one point Clinton said, "There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship" with that woman. Later, when confronted with evidence that there had in fact been an improper sexual relationship, he said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." He meant that at the time he made the statement it was true because he was no longer in a sexual relationship with her. His relationship was past tense-he "was" in an improper sexual relationship, but he no longer "is" in that relationship.
When we get caught up in justifying ourselves, we lose touch
with reality. We no longer see what we are doing, we no longer hear what people are saying, we no longer pay attention to what God is trying to do in our lives.
So what is the solution? Believe it or not, the solution is
grace. When we finally accept God's grace, we no longer have to justify ourselves. When we finally accept that Jesus has paid the price for all our mistakes, all our stupidity, all the wrong things we have ever done-when we finally accept that we are saved by grace, we no longer have to justify ourselves, we no longer have to defend ourselves, we no longer have to shut our ears to the people who are trying to help us, we no longer have to close our minds to the God who wants to transform us into the people we were meant to be.
Grace is the antidote to self-justification. When we
realize that we are justified by God's grace through faith, then we no longer have to justify ourselves. We can open ourselves to listening to God. We can open ourselves to the new relationship God wants to have with us, and that God wants us to have with one another.