Monday, February 7, 2011

Samuel and Eli - A Question For Sabbath Practice

At the initiation of 1 Samuel, we quickly find out that Eli, the high priest, and his two sons are far from upholding their responsibilities as religious leaders for God's people. Hophni and Phinehas, Eli's sons, are carousing about, taking advantage of the people and exploiting everyone for their own gain. The text says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. But, Eli, who is supposed to be the faithful covenant leader of Israel is hardly function in this role. He rebukes Hannah for being drunk, even though she's not, because he sees her lips moving but "hears" no words. He "hears" all of the stories about his sons abuses but really does nothing about it. When Samuel is brought to Shiloh to serve as an acolyte, 1 Samuel 3 relates a story about Samuel and Eli. Eli is in another room away from the Ark of the Covenant, shrouded in darkness, his eyes becoming dim. Samuel is lying in the room by the Ark (a symbol of God's presence) and by the lamp of God (another symbol of God's presence). Samuel is in a lighted room where he can "see." Samuel "hears" God speak when Eli does not. In fact, it takes Eli three times of Samuel coming to Eli for Eli to realize that God is speaking to Samuel. The one who is in the position of religious leader, and should be capable to recognize God's call; hear God's will; and recognize God's work, is left in the dark and lacking understanding. Ultimately, Samuel receives God's word and Eli receives the revelation through this young boy. The priesthood as embodied by Eli, Phinehas, and Hophni is left ineffective, deaf, and blind. Their own abuses of the religious system for their own gain results in their own demise. In the midst of this, God speaks, in a time when God's word is rare, to the lowly and humble. God speaks to the unassuming and the pleading. God hears, sees, and remembers these people and enters into their story bringing life through His presence. They seek and God allows them to see. They listen and God allows them to hear. But, it's not the religious leaders that are the ones that receive God's blessing. It's not the ones that should recognize God that are able to respond to God in the passage. Even when God pronounces judgment (this is typically employed to elicit repentance, upon which judgment is often relented i.e., Ninevah) upon Eli and his family, they do not have the sense to turn and repent. They hear but do not listen.

Sabbath is an opportunity for us to "see", "hear", "listen", and "respond" to God. It is an opportunity for us to humble ourselves and to come before God as unassuming persons seeking to enter into His presence. However, in the rigors of life and ministry, it is so easy to become like Eli: complacent and comfortable. It is easy to become un-hearing and un-seeing. We become so entrenched in the rituals that we miss out on the relationship. Instead of leading our communities, we become dull and dim witted to the realities that are swirling about us. It is our comfortable familiarity with religion that creates the largest hurdle for practicing Sabbath. Sabbath becomes a dead practice if it is not about entering the presence of God; listening for His voice; and responding, "Here am I." It prioritizes our life to be about faithful obedience, not power ploys or exploitation. And, it is about being so richly transformed and empowered by God's word that we speak God's word to a world in which God's word is rare. When God's word is let loose in the world creation happens, life is given. Hannah expresses this reality in her song (1 Samuel 2). Resurrection is the result. What was barren now bears fruit. What was dead is now alive.

The question, at least for me, is: "Am I Samuel or am I Eli?"

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