|Samuel in the Temple – David Wilkie (1839)|
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
18 Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.
26 Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.
Christmas has come, and in the minds of many, it’s time to move on to the next holiday. The stores will be clearing out extra merchandise, and unwelcome presents will be returned. Next up are the parades and games of New Year’s Day (and a new Dr. Who special). Liturgically, however, the Christmas season is not yet over. There is still time to sing some carols and hear Christmas related messages. The first Sunday after Christmas is usually low attendance, and my preachers (myself included) will be taking the week off. Nevertheless, liturgically we’re still in the midst of the Christmas season. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year C is Luke 2:41-52, which tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple when he was twelve, so we’ve moved well beyond infancy. This is, however, the only reference to Jesus’ childhood to be found in the New Testament. There’s nothing spectacular going on here. Jesus’ doesn’t make clay pigeons fly, or anything like that. He does, however, pay a visit to the Temple, where he engages the religious teachers in deep theological discussions. You might say he’s a rather precocious lad! He also causes his parents a few worries, because he got separated from the family when their caravan headed back to Nazareth. I’ve always liked that story, not just the part about the theological discussions, but the troubles he caused his parents. Whatever moral perfection we grant Jesus, let’s remember he had to grow and mature. That he did! As the Lukan story concludes we hear: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, he had stuff to learn along the way!
The reading from 1 Samuel 2 offers a parallel of sorts to that of Jesus. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible for this Sunday, we might picture Samuel as a boy of about twelve. He’s ministering in the Temple in Shiloh, as an apprentice to Eli the priest. If we turn back to chapter 1, we will find Samuel’s mother, Hannah, pleading with God to take away the shame of being unable to conceive and bear a child, in the course of her prayers, she promised that if God provided her with a son, she would return the child to the Temple to serve God there. Lo and behold, she conceives and bears a child, whom she names Samuel. As she promised, at the appropriate time, she brought Samuel to the Temple to live with Eli and serve with him in the Temple. We might use this story as an opportunity on what it means to dedicate children to God. Whether we practice infant baptism or infant dedication, the ritual invites parents to commit themselves to raising children in the faith, and congregations pledge to assist. I’m not sure we always do a great job at this, but in both the story of Jesus and Samuel, children are dedicated to the Lord’s service.
In chapter 2 we find Hannah and her husband Elkanah making an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Each time they make this trip, Hannah brings her son a new robe to wear in service in the Temple. After all, he’s a growing boy and will need new clothes on occasion. It also suggests that Hannah kept in contact with her son. Each time they visited the Temple, Eli would bless the couple, asking that God would bless them with more children.
The lectionary omits verses 21-25, which tells us that Hannah had three more children, while Samuel grew up on the presence of the Lord,as well as about Eli’s own less-than-honorable sons. While it is understandable, the author of the story seemed to want to make the contrast between Samuel and the priest’s sons, all of whom would have been in line to succeed their father. You might even see in Eli’s blessing of Elkanah and Hannah a ruefulness, recognizing that their son was more committed to God than his own sons. In fact, as Melissa Browning notes: “These weren’t just preacher’s kids being mischievous at church; it was far worse. They were stealing the offering, sleeping around, and threatening violence—all within the sacred space of the Temple” (Connections, p. 114). You could understand if Eli didn’t wish that his own sons would be more like Samuel.
The stories of Samuel and Jesus intersect in the Temples, where both demonstrate their faithfulness to God, and their wisdom. Samuel wears a linen ephod, a priestly vestment. Having served as an acolyte in the Episcopal church as a child, I can get a sense of what this might look like. I wore a black cassock with a white surplice. Properly dressed, I could assist the priest in consecrating the eucharistic elements. I would assume that Samuel had a similar responsibility, assisting Eli with the sacrifices, including those brought by his own parents. Jesus didn’t have the same responsibilities. He wasn’t an apprentice priest. Instead, he engaged in theological conversation with religious teachers, astounding his conversation partners with his understanding of deep topics (I wasn’t yet ready to do such things at age 12, believe me!).
There is another connector, and that is the description of their maturation process. Of Samuel it is said that he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” 1 Sam. 2:26). Witness the similar appellation given to Jesus in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” What more could any parent desire than to receive report cards like these?
Not all children grow up to be prophets and messiahs. Many children will be more like Eli’s sons than either of these two. Parents love to brag about their kids. Facebook seems to be a common space for doting parents to tell stories of their precocious children, who can do know wrong, and who at age 5 seem to have the wisdom and knowledge of a PhD candidate. Other parents, reading such reports of wondrous children, may feel like Eli, wishing their children could be wiser and looked upon with divine and human favor. It’s easy to feel a bit like a failure as a parent, when you discover that other children are better behaved and smarter than your own.
Whatever our status as parents, we can recognize in these two parallel stories, very special children, who grow up to fulfill important callings. We should celebrate their faithfulness, and call their parents are blessed. We should also recognize that in both cases the children grew in faith and wisdom. They were not born with the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. They were given the opportunity to develop their faith, either under the guidance of a religious leader in the case of Samuel or, we can presume, under the tutelage of parents (Jesus).
With these stories in mind, may we continue the Christmas journey toward Epiphany, and the full manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.