So let’s just admit that this is a very strange story. I’ve had it circled all summer. David takes a census, and God gets mad at him, and it just seems strange. David wants to know how many people are living in Israel, which doesn’t seem like a dangerous thing to know; in fact, it seems like one of the basic competences of government is that you should know how many people are living in your country, and if David’s going to be any kind of king this hardly seems like a bad idea. Actually it seems like one of the first good ideas he’s had in a long time, and as you know, after the conclusion last week of this most recent outbreak of civil war, Israel is in a bit of a new season — what better way to kick it off than by taking a census? And God gets mad at him anyway, and so I’ve had this thing circled all summer, under the assumption that if I circled it long enough eventually it would get a little less strange, and I’m not entirely sure that’s happened. It’s still strange. It’s a bit of a mystery, so I hope you will indulge me some detective work.
First of all, let’s observe that there’s no ambivalence in this text at all. David is clearly wrong, it’s just that the story never really tells us why. David’s clearly wrong: in the first verse, he’s incited to doing this because the anger of the Lord is kindled against him, which is one of those awkward ways in which Israel interprets its own history. Over in Chronicles, the writer tells this same story by saying that Satan gave David the same idea. It’s not worth lingering over the difference except to observe that from the very beginning it’s clear that this is a loser idea. And if you weren’t convinced, Joab shows up to make sure we know. Joab wants no part of it. David says “take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are,” and Joab says “Why on earth would you want to do that?” But of course David does it anyway. David always does things anyway. David musters all the force of the crown to go and count all his people, and then God tears into him, but we’ve known from the beginning that David is in the wrong. Tempted by Satan, opposed by Joab. This isn’t something David was supposed to do. We just never find out why not.
So if David’s clearly wrong, it could be that he’s wrong because for whatever reason Israel is opposed to knowing its own population. Which would admittedly be very strange, if it were true. But twice in the Moses stories God commands Moses to take a census of the people; once, just after they enter the wilderness, in the opening of the book of Numbers; again, much later on, after the people suffer a brutal and terrible plague. In each case the census serves as a kind of inaugural moment for a new season in Israel’s life, just like this for David is a new season in Israel’s life. If anything it means that there can’t be anything objectively wrong with knowing how many people belong to Israel at any given moment. The fault here can’t be in the information itself, which means, detective hats still on and at the ready, it means that the fault here has to be in David’s intentions. The problem isn’t the census. The problem is, what’s he going to do with it? Note that Moses takes a census when God tells him to. David gets no such instructions. David sets out on his own. What’s his motivation? Whatever it is, well, there’s your problem.
There are a few arguments out there. Some will argue that David’s census is a prelude to some kind of military draft, which would be underhanded if it were true, but again, we don’t know. Some will argue that David simply wants to bask in the quantity of people underneath his reign, that this is the equivalent to sitting in the treasury and counting the coins, which also surely doesn’t reflect well. But the interpretation with the most Biblical support goes like this: part of the law given to Israel in Exodus talks about the procedures for taking a census, and one of the procedures is that everybody you count owes some bit of money back to the temple, for maintenance and upkeep and all of that. In other words, a census is just a prelude for collecting taxes. What David wants to do here is give the crown some new revenue stream; he wants to fill up that treasury so he can go and count the coins. It means that what’s at stake in this bizarre little corner of the Old Testament is a theology of tax policy.
And now I can just feel you all vibrating with excitement. I mean, nothing stirs the imagination like a good story about tax policy. I mean, who needs all the sex and death and betrayal of the earlier chapters in David’s life when you can really dive into the juiciness of a good tax drama? I remember. Summer of 1999. In my life no movie came with more anticipation than Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace. I don’t necessarily speak for myself; I was always more of a Star Trek kid, then and now. But it was hard in the late 90’s not to be swept up in the anticipation of this series coming back to the big screen. I mean, in my childhood, it was the story: of heroism, and daring, and adventure, and good versus evil, and courage versus cowardice; it was a story of all our best and most noble virtues played out in a galaxy far, far, away.
It seemed like life itself writ larger than my imagination, and who wouldn’t be excited for Luke and Leia and Han to come back into our lives. And I remember going on the first night, to this new multiplex that had opened just that day a few towns over, and all these folks showed up dressed as God-knows-what, all their favorite B-level characters, and we all huddled in excitement as the lights dimmed and the Lucasfilm logo splashed across the screen and the music started and the traditional Star Wars text began to crawl up the screen: “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… turmoil has engulfed the galactic republic….” (ooh! turmoil! tell me more!)… “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”
Um, what? Taxation what? Sigh. Okay.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that The Phantom Menace is a disaster. If this sermon inspires you to do anything this week, please let it not be to go watch Star Wars: Episode 1. It’s pretty widely understood to be a terrible movie, and a terrible disappointment. It made a lot of bad decisions, and this isn’t the only one. But it does feel like the original sin of the movie is right there in the second line. The Star Wars galaxy had been a magical place. A place of joy and wonder. A place of real evil and real danger. A place where the great cosmic forces came to do battle. And now you’re telling me that the next chapter of our story is about taxes. That we are trading in light sabers and X-wing fighters for Excel spreadsheets and 1040 Schedule C’s. It’s just the wrong story. All due respect to Excel spreadsheets, but they just don’t belong in a Star Wars movie. And if I could have given George Lucas just one piece of advice, it would be this: don’t sweat the numbers, George. Just, you know, use the force.
So let me submit that whatever David’s motives — whether he’s getting ready for a draft, or getting ready for new taxes, or just trying to enjoy the fruits of his rule — whatever his motives are, the very idea that he is opening up the royal spreadsheet to start tallying the bounty of God’s covenant means that he has fallen into the wrong story. After all, up until this point, the story we’ve been telling is a story of God’s promises, to David and to David’s household. A story of God’s faithfulness to David in and out of some very thorny human relationships. A story of God’s punishment on David for some very cruel acts of violence and aggression. It’s not a story that reduces well to numbers on a page. Whatever that number is, whatever that census count might be, it doesn’t tell the real story of who David has been or what his kingship has meant; I mean, we’ve been at this for nine weeks — we’re gonna kill him off next Sunday — and I still feel like we have barely skimmed across the surface. Reduce this story to a number and you lose all the magic of it. Reduce the story to a number and all of a sudden you’re telling the wrong story entirely.
But of course churches do this all the time. Churches love a good census. Churches love a good spreadsheet. In a few months as we get towards the end of the year the session here at Amherst Presbyterian Church will have to approve our annual statistical report, which gets sent off to the national Presbyterian church offices in Louisville. We have to report changes in membership, members who have passed away and new folks who have joined. We have to report on things like age breakdown, gender breakdown, ethnic breakdown, all the stuff you would expect, along with things like average Sunday attendance and average Christian Education attendance and all these numbers that in theory tell the story of who the church is. And of course those numbers are kind of a lie. I mean, we have a list of people who are officially members of this church, but those are not exactly the same people who make this church what it is. Those of you who come to worship, and come to fellowship, and come to mission events, you don’t do it because your names are on a list; you do it because you feel known and loved by a community of grace that doesn’t exactly reduce to being on a spreadsheet.
But still, those numbers are tempting. You can actually just go on the national church website and look up statistical reports for any congregation in the country. They track them year-to-year, so you can watch these line graphs go up and down for any church you want to. When I was interviewing with churches right after seminary, this became recreational sport. Look at the numbers. Look at the charts. Indulge the temptation to believe that the story of that church is reducible to a line graph on a webpage. Some years a church will have a massive drop-off in membership, like ten, twenty, thirty percent. What does it mean? Did they just call the wrong pastor? Was there some split in the congregation? More often than not it’s just the year they decided to purge the membership rolls of folks who hadn’t been there in decades. But you don’t know. The numbers aren’t wrong, but what we do with them is so dangerous, because all we can do is extract meaning out of a chart that in and of itself has no meaning. Because what you can’t measure is the grace showered on this beloved community of faith. What you can’t measure is the outpouring of love and fellowship by even the tiniest churches, the ones that barely fill one cell on a spreadsheet. What you can’t measure is the work of discipleship and transformation and renewal that God does even with the smallest of these. Get too obsessed with the numbers and you just fall into the wrong story.
And for the record, Jesus just doesn’t care about the numbers. In fact I would say Jesus has something like a flagrant disregard for the numbers. In our Gospel story for today the high priests are feeling very anxious about the numbers — once again it’s this temple tax, and is this new Messiah going to teach his disciples not to pay it, and what are they going to do if people start thinking they don’t have to pay their temple taxes and how is this institution going to possibly survive but Jesus is not interested in that story. Sure, he tells Peter. Pay the tax. You know what, if they need the money so bad, go out to the lake, throw your line in, and the first fish that you get, open its mouth and you’ll find a gold coin. Use that to pay the tax.
It’s a totally bizarre story, it feels more like fairy tale than Gospel, but the point is that Jesus is working on another plane entirely. He’s not sweating the numbers. Not when he’s got just a few loaves and fishes and thousands of mouths to feed. Not when he sends out the disciples with no kind of security and no kind of spending account. Not when he bends heaven and earth for one woman and her meager coin. Not when only two or three or gathered. Remember that while the empire is busy taking a census, Jesus is busy getting born in a manger. He won’t show up in the count, but he’s the story that matters. Jesus is in another story altogether, and he’s not sweating the numbers.
None of this means that numbers are bad. None of this means that numbers are wrong. All it means is that if numbers are the only story we can tell, then we’re telling the wrong story. If the only story we can tell is how many folks show up on Sunday morning, then we’re telling the wrong story. If the only story we can tell is what the operating income is in our annual budget, then we’re telling the wrong story. Those numbers matter, of course they do. Those numbers matter, only somewhere in the background of the mission that Jesus calls us to do. There’s no way to quantify the stories of joy, and fellowship, and family, and transformation, that take place here at Amherst Presbyterian Church or in the life of any congregation. There’s no box on the statistical report for grace, and yet it’s the most important story we can tell. The story of God who loves us beyond measure. The story of the Holy Spirit whose fellowship is unquantifiable. The story of Jesus Christ, who so loved us that he suffered, died, and was counted out. But that story wasn’t over. Ours isn’t, either. Ours is the great story, good versus evil, courage versus cowardice, the great cosmic battle of all creation. So don’t sweat the numbers. Have a little faith.
Don’t sweat the numbers. Just, you know, use the force. Amen.