Homily: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jan 21, 2024
Somewhere back in grade school, it was impressed upon me and my classmates that every story has a beginning, middle and an end. Today’s readings present us with two beginnings (one of which is also an end) and one end (which is really a middle).
In the gospel, we have Mark’s breathless description of the call of the first four disciples as Jesus begins his public ministry.
In the reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, we have a middle, even though Paul thinks it is an end. But that’s ok, because the paradox of it all is that faithfulness in the middle of the story often means living as if it were the end.
“For the present form of this world is passing”
Neither stock market booms nor busts last forever. The power of nations and empires, including our own, is fleeting. There is an essential wisdom in recognizing that nothing in this world, including our very selves is permanent. As we confront the climate crisis, keeping an eye on the future as we make decisions about how to live in the present is more and more an essential virtue.
Finally, we have our reading from the 1st Book of Samuel-which relates both a beginning and an end. The beginning is, of course, the story of Samuel, the last ruling prophet from the time of the judges. The ending is the story of Eli. Each has meaning for us.
First a little background:
“Now the sons of Eli were wicked: they had respect neither for the Lord nor the priests’ duties toward the people…”
Among their mentioned sins are extorting choice portions of sacrifices for their own use and having sex with the women serving at the entry of the meeting tent. Greed and lust-not that those two sins have touched our own religious leaders.
Eli rebukes his sons, but they pay him no mind.
Enter Samuel, son of Hannah, whom 1st Samuel presents earlier as the beloved but childless wife of Elkanah. She is a woman of faith who pours out her heart before God and whose prayer is answered by a God who is faithful. She, in her turn, dedicates her precious child to God and sends him to Eli to serve in his household. And our reading begins.
“At that time, Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple where the ark of God was…”
The darkness that surrounds Eli is a metaphor for the corruption of the religious authorities. Lying in the light of the temple Samuel hears his name called 3 times. Each time he thinks it is Eli calling for him. Finally, Eli recognizes that it is God who is calling Samuel and tells Samuel how he must respond:
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
There it is, the beginning. And, just like Simon, Andrew, James and John from today’s Gospel reading, Samuel has no idea what he has just gotten himself into. For what are the words that God speaks?
“I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house…the iniquity of Elis house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever…”
Not surprisingly, Samuel is afraid to share what he has heard. And, here is where the story turns in a remarkable way. It is easy at this point to focus on Samuel, young and pure in his vision. But, in fact it is Eli whom I find is the most compelling character in this passage. Eli is old and deeply flawed. His story is coming to an end. But, Eli, after an initial misjudgement, shows compassion towards Hannah and assures her that her earnest prayer for a child will be heard by God. He then accepts Samuel into his household and in today’s reading demands to hear all of what God has revealed to him, however much personal pain the message contains.
For all his faults, Eli is still open to the word that God speaks. He has an essential integrity. He has not fallen into that most common sin of those who exercise religious authority: the substitution of his own voice and interests for those of the Most High. Eli knows that change is desperately needed and in the person of Samuel accepts and nurtures it. “let what seems good to God be done.” For Eli and his family this is an ending, for people he leads it is a new beginning.
God only knows how much we need the grace given to Eli as we confront the corruption of religious and social institutions of our own age. When murder, sexual violence and starvation become accepted tools of warfare…When a mother and two children desperately seeking safety in a new country drown in Rio Grande within sight of the authorities…When threats to our very planet and all life on it are ignored because of entrenched economic interests…When in the face of so much human suffering our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples stand silent we need the courage of Elto recognize our failings, encourage new voices and to follow new paths.
Only then can an ending become a hopeful beginning.