Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th of January 2020
1 Samuel 3:1-20
I am a member of the Council of the University of Divinity. The Uniting Church in Victoria has the right to appoint two people to the Council, and now those two people are me and Associate Professor Natalie Sims. The University of Divinity, founded in 1910 as the Melbourne College of Divinity, is the only university of specialisation in Australia. Its students consistently rate the University highly, in 2019, 93 per cent of students at the University of Divinity rated their education experience positively, the top result in the whole country, and I am extremely proud of it.
I say all that partly as an advertisement in case you or anyone you know is thinking of doing some theological study, but mainly because it is at meetings of the University that I tend to be most strident about the importance of theological education. As a private, specialised, university the University of Divinity is often asked to justify itself. Why does theology need to be studied at a university level? My answer is always that ‘bad theology kills people’, and I mean that literally. In most cases I am referring to the LGBTIQ people who over the decades have died by suicide because they have thought that God would reject them for their sexuality or their gender identity. But over the past week or so I have been reminded again of just how dangerous bad theology is.
Last week I talked a little about the attempted political coup in the USA. This week I read an article that said that ‘The mob carried signs and flag declaring ‘Jesus Saves!’ and ‘God, guns & guts made America, let’s keep all three’. Some were participants in the Jericho March, a gathering of Christians to “pray, march, fast, and rally for election integrity.”’ Bad theology can lead people to storm the Capitol Building, trying to overturn the results of a democratic election.
Often we only hear the first part of today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures; the Revised Common Lectionary puts verses 11 to 20 in brackets as ‘optional’. The first part of the reading is about God’s calling of Samuel; an unusual calling story because Samuel responds eagerly and immediately, offering himself and his life to God, rather than trying to get out of the calling as leaders like Moses and Jonah did. It’s an encouraging reading, especially for people who are getting older and whose eyesight is getting dim, because Eli did an amazing job as mentor to Samuel. But today I want us to instead focus on God’s first message to Samuel after Samuel takes on the role of prophet, and on the dreadful job that Eli apparently did as a father to his sons.
Eli may be a wonderful mentor for Samuel, but he is a failure as a father. Before today’s reading we are told of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, that ‘the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.’ (1 Samuel 2:12-13a) When worshippers were offering sacrifices at Shiloh, the servant of Hophni and Phinehas would come, while the meat offered as sacrifice was still boiling, and stick a fork into the pot to take the priests’ share of the meat. Their servant would also sometimes demand the priests’ share of meat before it was even cooked, not allowing the people offering sacrifices to burn the fat. In Leviticus it is said that ‘all fat is the Lord’s’ (3:16) and that worshippers were to turn the fat into smoke on the altar before giving the priests a share of the meat (6:31). By not allowing people to burn the fat Eli’s sons were stealing from the Lord. When those offering the sacrifice asked the priests’ servant to let them burn the fat and then take the priests’ share, the servant threatened to take it by force.
Furthermore, Eli hears that his sons lie with the women who serve at the entrance to the tent of meeting. There’s no way that the women could be freely consenting to sex with Eli’s sons; Hophni and Phinehas are raping them. Eli knows that all this is going on, he hears about it from the people, and he remonstrates with his sons. But his sons ignore him and continue their wicked ways. A man of God tells Eli that because Eli is honouring his sons more than his Lord his family will be cut off. God had promised Eli’s ancestor that his descendants would serve the Lord as priests forever, but the actions of Eli’s sons have prompted a change of mind, and Eli’s strength and the strength of his family will be cut off.
This is also God’s first message to Samuel. Once Samuel realises, with the help of Eli, that the voice he hears is God’s, God tells him: ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’ Samuel is naturally reluctant to tell Eli that God is going to punish his house, but Eli convinces him, and then responds, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
Later, the Lord does as he has threatened. In a battle between Israel and the Philistines Israel is defeated; the ark of God is captured; and Eli’s two sons are slain. When Eli, now ninety-eight years old and blind, hears this, he falls over backwards from his seat, breaks his neck, and dies. The strength and glory of his house has ended.
God’s treatment of Eli might seem unfair. The Lord tells Samuel that Eli is being punished because he knew what his sons were doing and didn’t restrain them. But we know that Eli did condemn them, and his sons didn’t listen to him. Eli was old; can he be blamed because he couldn’t persuade his scoundrel sons to change their wicked ways? Some biblical commentators believe he can, and I tend to agree with them. Eli doesn’t seem to have been a particularly good priest, no matter how helpful he was to Samuel. The very first time we meet him he is observing Samuel’s mother in prayer and because her lips are moving while she is speaking silently, he accuses her of drunkenness: ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ When he knows that his sons are stealing from the Lord and raping women Eli doesn’t have them removed from their positions. Since Eli has heard of their evil doings from ‘all the people,’ presumably ‘all the people’ would have been on his side if the old man had asked for their help in deposing his sons. But instead Eli merely remonstrates with his sons once, and lets them continue. Eli is accused by biblical commentators of being an indulgent and weak parent, whose failure to discipline his sons in their youth led to them believing that they could sin more extravagantly once they were in positions of power. Eli is punished for his sin: allowing and facilitating the sins of others.
‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) There will always be people in positions of power who will use that power to benefit themselves and oppress others, as Hophni and Phinehas did. There will always be people who know that abuse is happening but do little or nothing about it, as Eli did. What is even worse is that these people will include religious leaders and followers, like Eli and his sons, who are able to justify what they are doing according to their own perverted theology. Last week’s attack in the USA showed us that again. But today’s story tells us what God thinks of those who use their privilege, their position, even their religion, to abuse others. The Lord condemns it. Maybe knowing that will help us to make the right decision and do the right thing when we see scoundrels practising iniquity. Let us do our best to restrain the Hophnis and Phinehases of our time, especially if they blaspheme God by claiming God supports them. Bad theology is dangerous, and must be condemned. We may want to imitate Eli in mentoring younger people in the faith; but let us not imitate Eli when we see wrong happening, in our church or in the wider world. Amen.