Hearing God’s word

3 June 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 4B (RCL)

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23 – 3:6

I find it intriguing that the boy Samuel was sleeping in the presence of the ark of God. Given the later concern for fencing the ark off into the inner sanctum, the simplicity of this story is refreshing. The narrator is careful to tell us that the word of God was rare in those days, probably because of the behavior of Eli’s sons, who took the best offerings for themselves, and slept with the women who served at the entrance of the Temple. But Samuel, dedicated to God by his mother Hannah, sleeps in the presence of God.

It took God three times of speaking before Eli and Samuel catch on, and then the message delivered is unpleasant. The narrator sets up a wonderful story. We can imagine how uncomfortable a boy would be delivering such a message to a respected elder. He does, and Eli accepts God’s word. This story comes at the beginning of the first book which bears Samuel’s name, as a way of establishing his credentials. He hears God’s word, and speaks it clearly without thought for self-enrichment. This model of leadership will serve as a foil to the monarchy that he eventually sets up, rather against his own will.

The two stories we hear in Mark’s Gospel brings us to another perspective on God’s words. In the case of Eli’s sons, there are not rules against what they are doing, except the precedent of custom. Priests used to take meat from the pot, after the fat was burned, but Eli’s sons demanded raw meat, before the fat had been burned. They wanted to keep the best for themselves and not participate with those offering their sacrifices. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the offering community.

The laws of the sabbath had been written to hedge the commandment to keep the sabbath holy. In Second Temple Judaism, and especially after the Temple had been destroyed, keeping the sabbath was a way of participating in the cult that could no longer be expressed in sacrifice. There was a belief that when all the laws were kept perfectly, the Messianic Age would arrive. So the Pharisees set a hedge around the laws. For the sabbath, there were restrictions on how far one could walk, what constituted work, and so on.

Jesus points out that the laws are intended to remind us of our dependence on God, not our ability to manipulate God. David and his companions eating the bread of presentation shows that even food offered to God is meant for the sustenance of the community. So, picking grain on the sabbath does not violate the holiness of rest. God, after creation of humankind, rested on the sabbath to delight in the creation. God’s creatures can certainly delight in the creation, especially on the sabbath.

In the story of the healing of the man with the withered hand, it is the man’s place in the community that is at stake. With a withered hand, he would not be able to work the other men could. He is at the synagogue on the sabbath, and Jesus restores him to wholeness. Wholeness (Shalom) is the purpose of the sabbath, not an attempt to manipulate God.

In our capitalist economy, we need constant reminders that we are not self-made. Sabbath rest would be a good start. We depend upon God and upon the gathered community for our very being. Eli’s sons had forgotten this fact, as had those who plotted to kill Jesus (at least in Mark’s telling of it). We would do well to listen.

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