From the 2012 ForeWords archive:
The calling of Samuel to the Lord’s service as an eventual prophet hinges on a single sentence from this week’s lections: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
The chief priest at the Shiloh shrine, Eli, was not only becoming physically blind and deaf but spiritually, as well. Whether he actually knew about the details himself, Eli’s sons were abusing their father’s position by keeping sacrificial meat for themselves. It sounds odd to our own 21st-century ears, but their actions in removing meat from the shrine’s boiling pots and insisting that the fattest (and therefore tastiest) portions of raw meat be given to them showed what little regard they had for the people’s spiritual lives.
With that as background we pick up the story of Hannah’s young son, Samuel (and much could be written about her struggles against her “sister wife” and their husband Elkana’s contempt for her) as he begins his service to the aged priest (it’s lengthy but worth reading all the way through):
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 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 of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.
The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “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 fulfill 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 forever, 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 forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. –1 Samuel 3:1-20 NRSV
It’s to Eli’s credit that he recognized the “word of the Lord” to him, even though it was a word of harsh judgment. Once Samuel was grown and functioning as a true prophet among people who still were unaccustomed to hearing God’s word, he would be the emissary bringing divine judgment against Israel’s first king, Saul. Yes, long before that Samuel had tried to persuade the people against the idea of monarchy, to no avail obviously. Saul’s departure led, of course, to David and then Solomon. Both were imperfect men and monarchs, but God still used them for greater purposes.
We live in a time when many people put forth the argument that the word of the Lord is rare and that visions are nonexistent. Certainly there are people, in both secular/political and religious leadership, who act as blind and deaf as Eli. Maybe they just don’t want to see or hear the misery and misfortune of vast numbers of people today. But I reject the idea that nobody is recognizing the situation of poverty, homelessness, abuse, and hunger (for starters) and doing anything about it.
One morning a week I volunteer with Harvesters, the major food bank serving 26 counties in Missouri and Kansas centered in Kansas City, Missouri. I bring this up not for anything extraordinary I do. I simply load a big white van with boxes of groceries and make deliveries in the extended Kansas City metro area. (For a guy who’s spent most of his adult life working in an office, getting to “play” deliveryman is a welcome change of pace.) The remarkable, “prophetic” thing I witness each week happens after I back the van into one of the 17 loading bays at Harvesters headquarters. Some weeks I have to wait my turn because of the busyness of the place.
Starting early in the morning on each weekday, volunteers and paid staffers from the 620 nonprofit organizations in the Harvesters network load tons of food into trucks, car trunks, and trailers. I sometimes wonder just how some of them make it back to their home sites with such enormous loads. Most of the nonprofits are churches and faith-based charities. Some use Harvesters food to supplement their own community pantries, while others prepare meals weekly or even daily for people unable to provide adequately for themselves. The sheer enormity of food leaving the food bank each week tells me there’s a whole lot of hunger going on out there. The misery index appears to never let up.
So why do all these people do it? I’ve asked a few of them. Their individual explanations vary, but a common thread runs through their testimonies (and that’s the right term to use here, by the way): They heard the word of the Lord to “feed my sheep.” I would probably have personal difficulties with the beliefs, theologies, rituals, and perspectives of some of those who back their vehicles into place every week to load up with food. They would, no doubt, have as much trouble with some (or many!) of mine. That’s not the point. There are indeed people who, unlike Eli and his rascal sons and contemporary politicians and religious leaders, see and hear quite clearly. They are drawn into the Lord’s service by a vision of a better world, one hungry person at a time.
Thanks be to God.