Samuel, Eli and Nathanael
Revd Heather Betts
Our Old Testament reading from Samuel is a story within a story. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was crying in the temple because she had no children. She prayed to God for a son, and vowed that if God gave her a son she would give him to the Lord. When Samuel was born, she kept her promise and handed the infant over to Eli, the priest of the temple so he could learn to minister before God.
Eli and his family had the promise of permanent ministry as they were part of the Aaronic clan, but Eli was elderly and frail and his sons had not turned out well. They were described as scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord, acting immorally and showing contempt for the sacrificial system. When the people brought animals to the temple as an offering to atone for their sins, Eli’s sons stole the best parts for themselves rather than dedicate the meat to God which was the requirement at that time.
Eli appears to have been a well meaning but perhaps rather ineffectual character. There could have been a lack of discipline when his sons were young – a failure to set boundaries. Eli allowed his sons to serve in the temple despite their behaviour.
Yes, Eli may have fallen somewhat short as a father, but God chose Eli to be a father figure to Samuel who was destined to be a great prophet. This time Eli succeeded – Samuel turned out well. Eli had messed up, but God gave him a second chance. If we mess up as I am sure some of us do at times, myself included, God will often give us a second chance, if we are sorry, and willing to learn from our mistakes.
Samuel had three key characteristics that make for a great prophet. He was eager to serve the Lord, obedient to God, and he was willing to be honest, to speak the truth, even when it was difficult to do so. The prophets of the Old Testament were very unpopular and often put to death because they were willing to say the words which the people did not want to hear, but which really needed to be said.
The prophets of the Old Testament had a special one to one relationship with God. Today, because of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are all called into a special one to one relationship with God through prayer. So, in a sense we are all potential prophets for God. Thankfully, we are unlikely to be as cruelly treated as the Old Testament prophets, but we may sometimes find ourselves, like the prophets, at odds with the ways of the world. There may be times when, rather than following the crowd, we are called to stand up for the weak and defenceless and speak out for fairness and justice for all people. Honesty can lead to integrity, the quality of having ethical principles.
In today’s gospel reading we meet one of Jesus new disciples, Nathanael – immediately identified by Jesus as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.“ In other words, an honest man. This is a tribute any devout Israelite would have recognized. In Psalm 32:2 we hear “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputs no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit”, and in Isaiah 53:9 “He had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.” When Nathanael asks how Jesus can know this about him, Jesus reply is rather cryptic. “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” For the people of that time, the fig tree was a symbol of peace, and it was customary to sit and meditate under its branches. So Nathanael may have had a spiritual encounter with God under the fig tree which made Jesus words meaningful for him, and led to him recognising who Jesus was.
Honesty comes, not only from speaking the truth but by living our lives in a genuine and authentic way, by being our true self, the person God created us to be. Living in lockdown may mean having less distractions, more opportunities to spend some quiet time with God. Being with God creates a sacred space which is also a very safe space where we can dare to be honest with ourselves about: what we have done, what we are thinking and what we are feeling before God. In that safe place where I experience a sense of God’s love for me, I am able to accept my weaknesses without beating myself up. It is a place where we may dare to explore and discover more about ourselves. Maybe find some answers to that question which haunts humankind: Who am I? Bernard of Clairvaux once said: “Belong to yourself before you belong to others.” Jesus spent time alone with God in prayer before he went out to serve the world.
Throughout our lives we are often taught by the media, our families, or our schools to view ourselves as different from others These differences are often viewed as flaws or limitations. But, in fact we are all flawed human beings – we all have qualities we cannot change. Once we accept who we are we stop wasting our energy wondering why we are not someone else or pitying ourselves for being different. In time, we may realise that what we once regarded as being flaws are in fact special qualities which make us unique and extraordinary.
We are and always will be different from others. Perhaps our task is to try to be ourselves and to realise the fullness of our own lives without thinking we have to become paragons of perfection. Taking ourselves as we are may be the starting point if we are to develop as much and as well as we can, but it will always be in line with our own unique personalities, which need to become more and more unique. The more we are ourselves, the more we shall be different from everyone else.
George Orwell said: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” If you long to be happier, you must work to accept who you are at this moment. The parts of you that cannot be changed must be incorporated into a whole and beautiful, imperfectly perfect you.