False Assumptions, False Accusations
Being a leader isn't easy, and being led is no piece of cake either. In our lives, we occupy both positions, simultaneously and continuously. That dichotomy creates tension: even as people "answer" to us, we "answer" to others. Judah and Israel are led, in our readings today by David and Ishbosheth, respectively. The apostles, in response to conflict in the community, raise up leaders-deacons-to minister to the community and one of them, Stephen, proves to be a lightning rod for conflict. There is conflict between the leaders and those being led...and in both cases the outcomes are tragic:
Saul's son, Ishbosheth's star is on the decline. Abner, the general who had placed him on his throne is dead. David is quickly consolidating his rule and is growing in popularity. The world is closing in on him, and then it all comes crashing down. Two "raiders" in his employ decide to turn on him. They walk into his house during the heat of the day when everyone is lying down to rest, enter the king's chamber, stab him to death and take his head to David. They hope to show their loyalty to the rising ruler by presenting him with this grisly trophy. What they get instead is condemnation and death. Just because you got rid of one leader whose rule is a source of conflict does not mean that you are now suddenly "in" with the new regime. In fact, how can the new ruler trust you? Those assassins made a false assumption...kill the old leader and the new one will celebrate you. To their dismay, David is savvy enough to recognize that he can neither accept their loyalty (it is suspect), nor their gift (it would be a stain, a sin before God, attached to his reign). Their lives are forfeit.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see storm clouds forming over the work of one Stephen. He is a righteous, and spiritually impressive young man who is one of those ordained by the apostles to oversee the administration of the needs of the Church. Conflicts arise between Stephen and members of a faction who then choose to accuse him of blasphemy before the Temple authorities. These are false accusations, but will prove to be the death of Stephen, making him the first martyr (but that comes later). This situation is another burden of leadership...not only must a leader navigate waters made choppy by false assumptions; they must also navigate the challenges of false accusations. It is remarkable how easy it really is, to accuse and then engineer the destruction of a leader...but there it is.
Stephen is clear-eyed in the face of these attacks. David is steadfast in dealing with the mess made by the assassins of his enemies and rivals. Both are challenged with remaining true to God while are the same time overcoming the challenges of leadership in very murky and complicated situations. The singular consolation of these readings is the model presented of what a righteous leader looks and acts like...one who is connected to and works from a position of strong faith in God and deep integrity of person.
David's ability to dispense with people who accomplish his dirty work still disturbs me to no end. Stephen's impending martyrdom only exacerbates that disquiet; but the recognition that leading in the world means resolving in a godly way the false assumptions, and accusations that will continually arise around us is cause for prayer and reflection. Though the examples are negative, perhaps the lessons learned can lead to more positive outcomes for us all.