Samuel is keeping the night’s watch over the Ark. In those days, the Israelites believed that God may show up at any minute, and that it would be at the Ark, which was in the innermost chamber of the Tent of Meeting at Shiloh, in modern day Palestine. Someone had to be with the Ark in case God showed up. You couldn’t have a scenario wherein God appeared, saying, “Hear, O Israel, I am the Lord your…where is everybody?” So, Eli, who is the Judge and in charge at Shiloh, appoints his young apprentice, Samuel, to take the night watch. Samuel’s job is to be ready in case God shows up. The beloved scene where three times Samuel thinks it’s Eli? It’s not just a cleverly deployed narrative convention; the reason for Samuel’s vigil is happening, and it does not occur to Samuel that it could be. Eli figures it out for him.
We think of this story as the Calling of Samuel; it is also the judgment of Eli. That makes Eli one of the more complex characters in the Bible. In this story, he’s a good guy. Eli is the other person Samuel requires to confirm and explain God’s call. Eli’s old and his eyesight is poor, so we want to feel sorry for him. He lovingly calls Samuel “son,” a show of affection not required of him. He loves Samuel, and Samuel’s reluctance to share the news of judgment could indicate that he can’t bear to tell the man who is for all intents and purposes his adopted father. Finally, Eli accepts God’s judgment serenely. What we know from earlier scenes is that Eli’s biological sons are awful people. They are the priests at Shiloh. They stole sacrificial animals from worshippers, used their positions as the priests to get rich, and liked to force themselves sexually on women who came to Shiloh to worship. Eli gave his sons a stern talking to, but that did not stop them. The Judge was unable to judge. That’s why God condemns Eli in today’s reading.
The story hinges on this lovable broken doomed screwup. The man condemned for failing in his vocation as Judge is the man who grasps that God is trying to get Samuel’s attention. Moreover, Eli is part of a web of people God uses to call Samuel: Hannah, the faithful of Israel crying out for justice, Samuel himself, and Eli. That’s a lot of moving pieces. Eli is right in the heart of it. God uses Eli to call us to think about the brokenness of humans, and the interconnectedness of humans.
We are interconnected, despite our contemporary notion of a differentiated autonomous self. We’re taught from infancy that we are our selves, independent and free. A certain amount of this is healthy. Cults, totalitarian states, and abusive partners or parents depend on undermining people’s self-worth and inhibiting people’s autonomy. I tell my daughters that their value as humans does not derive from whether boys like them or girls approve of them. The problem is Western culture seeks to erase responsibility to and for other people. It is never enough in our culture to say, “Don’t worry what boys think.” (Though our culture is obsessed with what the boys think.) Culture always wants us to add, “Don’t worry if that boy has nothing to eat or not place to sleep.” Today, God uses Eli to remind us how many moving parts were involved in getting Samuel to become God’s prophet. We’re in this together with everyone else.
Eli’s connectedness illuminates Eli’s brokenness. Eli fails to protect the people for whom he is responsible. The story endears Eli to us, so God’s judgment on Eli confronts us with the question of how we as interconnected people would deal with brokenness. These days, we have almost impossible standards for people. Everyone is perfect, pure and blameless, authoritative, wise, and good. Until we find something bad or wrong. Then, that person is horrible, filthy and reprehensible, dangerously ignorant, foolish, and evil. Nothing will ever redeem them, any good they did is ruined. Eli won’t let me divide people this way. Eli confronts me with a lovable old servant of God who has not served God well and whose inability to rein in his wicked sons has hurt an awful lot of people. I must assess Eli’s actions. And the only criteria I have for that is the Revelation, the Word of God. Jesus the Word of God who reveals two things: he reveals God and he reveals us.
That’s what happens in the Gospel today. Jesus reveals God to Nathanael, and he reveals Nathanael to Nathanael. Nathanael’s been sitting under a fig tree, which is traditionally the place from which a rabbi read and taught Torah. (Like Samuel, he is doing something where God is expected to show up and does not, initially consider God showing up a possibility.) Phil says, “Come, meet The One.” Nathanael comes. Jesus tells him, “A true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Something about that strikes a chord deep in Nathanael. “How do you know me?” “You’re Phil’s rabbi friend, right?” “Oh. My. God. You’re the son of God! You’re the King of Israel!” Jesus isn’t done revealing. He shows Nathanael, “You believe because I could tell you’re a rabbi. No, it’s okay. Everyone has their reasons for believing at first. I’m going to give you better ones. You’re going to see the divine flowing to earth and heaven through me.” Jesus reveals Nathanael to Nathanael, and in doing that Jesus reveals that he is God.
This twofold revelation is how Christ calls us to live and discern what to do in this world. That by which I point away from me and towards God is from God. That by which I reveal God to my neighbor and reveal my neighbor to my neighbor is from God. All else is suspect. It’s why I can still see the good Eli did: Eli did a good job protecting and nurturing the boy, Samuel. Eli’s words to Samuel revealed God to Samuel, in a sense revealed Samuel to Samuel—it’s as though Eli says, “I think you’re going to be the one God finally shows up for!” It’s also ultimately why I accept God’s word against Eli. Eli didn’t protect the vulnerable from his biological sons, he didn’t stop the priests from abusing their power. God’s word through Samuel reveals Eli to Eli. This twofold revelation is also why I don’t judge Eli. I see my own brokenness. I have to trust that the God who remains faithful to us despite several millennia of serial faithlessness will remain faithful to Eli, and will raise Eli from the dead at the resurrection—whatever that is. I have to trust that because I’m counting on an unmerited resurrection for myself. No, today’s word is not for beyond this life. Today’s word is for today.
Today Shiloh is in Northern Palestine. It is an Israeli settlement founded in 1978. The international community considers it to be stolen land. It’s propped up by US tax dollars and our military alliance with Israel. Like most settlements, it is part of a ring of Israeli dwellings built around and through Palestinian cities and villages. Palestinians aren’t allowed to pass through Israeli territory without passing through checkpoints. Theoretically, this is no big deal. It would be like saying you need your passport to get to Canada, but I’m just going to Michigan City. Because the settlements are built in rings around Palestinian villages, going from Valpo to Michigan City, or going from Trinity to Valparaiso High School, becomes a matter of passing through customs and security. And security assumes every Palestinian is a filthy animal and planning a terrorist attack.
We are interconnected. We’re all in this together. The Word of God confronts us: What are you gonna do? The Jews have been harassed and oppressed and dehumanized and murdered for centuries. Our faith tradition is culpable in most of that history. AND the existence of Shiloh and other settlements harasses and oppresses and dehumanizes and murders Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews—and I would argue dehumanizes the Israelis who assume this posture. What will we do? Will we love the dehumanized and those who dehumanize them? Will we demand peace and justice for all? Or will we give our sons a stern talking to and go about our business?
Maybe that’s too big to wrap our heads around. How about protecting the vulnerable closer to home? For the first time that anyone can recall, someone proposed to the city government in Valparaiso that there be a housing project for men who are currently homeless, and the city did not say no. Usually the answer is flat out, NO. Well, this time, someone asked, and we did not get a “no.” Different groups here in town are starting to get their ducks in a line. Maybe we have an opportunity to help the vulnerable here, within driving distance; to support people we know; and to carry out God’s work where we live. Maybe God wants us, just blocks from City Hall, to bring the Word of God to bear so that this can be done. Maybe the Word of God is confronting us: “Here’s the opportunity? Will you do it?”
I’m not saying that care for Valparaiso’s vulnerable or the Holy Land’s vulnerable is an either/or; it’s not “pick one, forget the other.” I’m not saying God has ruled out any other purposes for us. For crying out loud, it’s MLK weekend and racism is alive and well in our society and in our county, and Christ can’t stand that. I’m saying that we are interconnected. Our brokenness manifests in our interactions with our neighbors, across the world or across the street. We’re here, at our present-day Tent of Meeting—the Table of our Lord—and reading from our present day Book—the Holy Scriptures—and God is showing up even if that was low on our list of expectations. Jesus reveals our brokenness to us and reveals God to us, and promises, “Come with me. God loves you so much that we can do something about this brokenness.” And, like Philip and Nathanael, we follow.