I don’t like giving people bad news. I don’t know anyone who does. But, sometimes, it’s your job.
In Sunday’s OT reading (1 Samuel 3:1-20), Samuel hears a call from the Lord. Three times, he mistakes the call as a summons from Eli, his master, but, after the third time, Eli discerns that the Lord is calling the boy, so, on the fourth try, when the Lord calls Samuel, he responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
But I don’t think Samuel wanted to hear what God had to say: “I am about to punish Eli’s house forever.” Eli’s sons were wicked. The scriptures describe them as “worthless men” (1 Sam. 2:12). They would pervert the sacrificial offerings of the people, taking them for themselves. They would use their position to force the women who served at the entrance to the temple to have sex with them. Eli confronted them about it, but they would not listen to him. So God planned to punish them and kill them, and God chose to reveal that to Samuel. Great news, huh?
The next morning, Eli was eager to hear what the Lord had spoken to his young protégé, but Samuel didn’t want to reveal it. Remember, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had given her son over to Eli and the authority of the temple from the time Samuel had been weaned. Samuel was a gift to Hannah from the Lord, and, as she had promised, she had given him back to God. Eli had taken Samuel under his wing. He had taught him not only the faith of their people but had trained him how to serve in the temple. He was more than a mentor. Eli was a father-figure for young Samuel. And, now, God had shown Samuel that his master and his family were doomed. And, now, Samuel had to tell his master what was going to happen.
What does it mean to speak truth to power? What does it mean to break the heart of one you love because you have a truth to tell? What does it mean to ostracize yourself from your community because you have a prophetic message to share?
Notice how Samuel’s integrity is described as this reading comes to an end: “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” The result is that he was trustworthy in all of Israel. Everyone knew and believed that Samuel would tell them the truth because he was willing to accept personally the consequences of his words. This wasn’t easy for him, but he had to say it.
How do we bring hard news to one we love? Whether it’s a life-crippling addiction or a life-threatening illness or a life-destroying career or a life-robbing relationship—how do we break the heart of one we love? Never with self-righteous condemnation nor with even an ounce of joy but only and always with fear and pain and sorrow. The prophet’s call isn’t easy, and it isn’t supposed to be.