Thursday, January 11, 2018

Eli, His Sons, and Organized Religion

I am planning to preach on 1 Samuel 3 this Sunday, and I've heard from several of my colleagues that they plan to do the same. The calling of Samuel is a rich story. This boy had been dedicated to the Lord's service by his mother Hannah, who brought him to Eli when he was barely weaned. One night years later, the Lord stood in the temple while Samuel lay in his bed and called to him. After missing the significance of the Lord's voice three times, Eli suggested that his young assistant invite the Lord to speak. As I wrote about on Tuesday, the lectionary gives us the option of stopping there with Samuel's invitation to the Lord to speak, but to me it seems that the church needs to hear the rest of the story.

But, before we can hear the part about the prophecy against Eli and his sons being fulfilled, we need to know what they did to deserve the Lord's judgment. I spent some time this morning rereading 1 Samuel 1-4, and I was reminded of the tension that the author presents between the leadership of Eli and Samuel. We read in 1 Samuel 2 that Eli's sons were stealing from the Lord. People would bring their sacrifices to the tent of meeting (no temple yet), but they would remove some of the meat from the boiling pot for themselves and take some of the burnt offering before it was burnt, insisting that it be given to them raw or else they would respond with violence. Later on, we read that they were having sex with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting, which, given the power differential between the sons and the women, is not unlike a boss pressuring an administrative assistant to have sex with him. And, throughout it all, Eli knew what was going on and he did almost nothing.

Like our contemporary experience of sexual harassment and clergy sex scandals, the narrative here is complicated. The Bible tells us that Eli spoke to his sons about their misdeed, saying, "Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad." In other words, everyone knew what was going on. But, when Eli spoke to his sons, they refused to listen to him. As the reason for their refusal, the narrator adds the complicating detail that "it was the will of the Lord to kill them," which opens up the need for another post that attempts to make sense of the post hoc perspective that allows a theology of causality, but, again, that's for another day. Another complicating detail comes at the beginning of Eli's response, when the narrator introduces Eli's culpability by letting us know that he "was very old." Later on, the narrator will let us know that Solomon's advanced age becomes a mitigating factor for his decision to turn away from the Lord and serve the gods of his many wives, and this detail seems to be placed here to let the reader know that Eli wasn't as sharp as he once was, suggesting that his ability to curtail his sons' wickedness may have been diminished. These factors may increase our sympathy for Eli, but they do not excuse his guilt.

At the end of 1 Samuel 2, an unnamed "man of God" comes to Eli and delivers the prophecy of his family's upcoming destruction. We don't hear Eli's response until the end of this Sunday's reading, when Samuel confirms the prophecy and Eli says, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him." This faithful response, a further complicating factor, offers a fruitful direction for a sermon this Sunday.

Eli, as far as we can tell, was faithful in his service to the Lord, but, in his management of his sons, he was negligent. He knew the problem, and he was the only person in a position to correct it, but he was weak--in body, in mind, and in spiritual constitution. He spoke the truth to his sons, but he did not go further than that. Even his words to them--"it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad"--suggests that Eli was more concerned with public relations than rooting out the source of the evil. In his address to his sons, he names for the reader the reason this is such a problem: "If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession." These sons were priests. They were responsible for helping God's people set things right, but they themselves were the problem. How can those whose job it is to fix the problem fix the problem when they are the problem?

What happens when the police officer become the criminal? What happens when the firefighter becomes the arsonist? What happens when the general becomes the traitor? What happens when the clergyperson becomes the apostate? What happens when the church becomes the golden calf?

We need a Samuel. When those whose job it is to bring God's people back to God through the proclamation of the gospel and its invitation to repentance and new birth through Jesus Christ stand up for themselves instead of God, exist for their own sake instead of the salvation of the world, and confuse the unadulterated theology of grace for a system that edifies itself instead of the lives of those it serves, we need a prophet to speak the hard truth to us. I'm not sure that Sunday's sermon is the time for that. I've never been confident in my ability to speak the truth as Samuel does. But I'm listening to God's word, asking God to speak to me the way that God spoke to Samuel and Samuel spoke to Eli.

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