Sharing with Family
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Mark 1:43-51
This week’s readings offer two contrasting tales of family responses to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The story of Eli and Samuel occurs against the backdrop of Eli the priest at Shiloh failing to properly instruct his sons in the ways of the LORD. The corrupt priests were taking the bits of sacrifice that they liked, before the choicest, fattiest bits had been roasted for God, and consuming them for themselves. This practice invalidated the sacrifices of the Israelites and demonstrated not only a disrespect for God’s law, but also a contempt for the people they were supposed to be serving and representing before God. As if this were not enough, Eli’s sons even raped the women who were officiating at the entrance to the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:22).
Eli only became concerned about his sons’ behavior when he heard from the community that their misdeeds were well-known (1 Sam 2:23). His rebuke of his sons finally was occasioned by social pressure, rather than the concern of a senior priest closely monitoring the important work of his subordinates. Tales of priests and ministers abusing their roles and preying upon the people when they should have been praying to God is an old story, and sadly, nothing new. God was horrified by this behavior and resolved to remove Eli’s whole family from consideration from priestly duties, as well as ending their lives prematurely (1 Sam 2:30-34). This oracle of punishment for spiritual abuse was the first message of Samuel’s long prophetic career.
After this background, in this week’s reading, Eli had a small rehabilitation of his career as a spiritual leader of Israel. The old priest utterly failed his own sons, and his physical blindness which introduces chapter 3 is a not very subtle metaphor of his spiritual blindness to the ways of God, especially when the reader is told explicitly that the Word of the LORD was not common, and there were not many visions (1 Sam 3:1). But when God came and stood next to Samuel [!!!], calling his name (1 Samuel 3:10), the young boy Samuel knew what to say because of Eli’s belated instructions.
The next day, Eli pointedly addressed Samuel as “my son” (1 Sam 3:16) when he demanded that the boy tell him the content of God’s message – knowing for certain that it would not be positive for his family. His acceptance of God’s pronunciation of sentence may seem righteous at first, but as we will see next week in the story of Jonah and Nineveh, mere acceptance of punishment from God demonstrates a lack of what has been called “prophetic imagination.” Real prophets seek to change God’s mind and avert destruction [Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus &c]. Despite his failures with his own sons, however, Eli instructed his “son” Samuel in the correct response to when God called his name.
The gospel readings present a much more salubrious picture of familial responses to the call of the Kingdom. Jesus had gone out to meet with his relative, John the Baptizer, and while there, two of John’s disciples spent an afternoon talking with Jesus and decided to follow him instead (John 1: 35-39). Andrew, one of the two who left John to follow Jesus, went immediately to his brother Simon/Peter, told him about Jesus and then they both followed (John 1:40-42). According to next week’s gospel text, Peter was not down at the Jordan River in the vicinity of Jerusalem, but up on the Sea of Galilee, fishing. Andrew must have told his brother about the Messiah, such that when Jesus finally appeared at the side of the Sea, they could not have joined him quickly enough.
It is not explicit in the text, but the other disciple of John’s who followed Jesus was probably Phillip. When Jesus set out from the Jordan to return to the Galilee, where he would meet Peter, he called for Phillip [and not Andrew, who had probably left the day before] to come with him (John 1:43). Phillip, like Andrew, was anxious to tell his family about the Messiah, and he invited his brother Nathanael to “come and see” if anything good could come out of Nazareth. Nathanael, after hearing only a few words from Jesus exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Aside from the holy family, and those at the Temple at the time of Jesus’ dedication, Nathanael was among the first to understand who Jesus was.
The witnesses of Nathanael and Peter were due entirely to their brothers’ witness to their family members. Their faithfulness in embracing the Kingdom of Heaven for themselves and their families when presented with the opportunity stands in stark contrast to the example of Eli and his sons.
Obviously, each person is an individual, and even the holiest, saintly parent will experience disappointments in their children. The problem of Eli was not that his sons sinned, but that he did not try to discourage them from their sin which was happening right in front of him until it became a public matter.
On my mind and in my heart as I write this is a non-blood, but exceptionally close relative who has done everything possible to communicate the wisdom and love of God to her daughter, who has been in several difficult situations. I would like to hold her up an example of a faithful mom, who even though there are family difficulties, nonetheless is faithful to her God and her family, and trying to bring the two together. She has everything in common with Andrew and Phillip who sought to bring their families into the Kingdom.