1 Samuel 2:18-26
A reflection by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
We’ve finished Advent and reached the birth of Christ, and everything has changed. Since we are dealing with the Gospels, it’s not changing in the ways we would have expected.
In the liturgical year, we are in the Christmas season, yet this week’s story presents Jesus not as an adorable baby, but as an independent adolescent. In the calendar of saints, December 27 is sandwiched between the martyrdom of St. Stephen on the 26th and the massacre of the Holy Innocents on the 28th. These juxtapositions are a useful antidote to the sentimentality of cards and of some carols. They are a reminder that the prophecies of Advent have their darker side, that the presence of God among us challenges our assumptions and intensifies our power struggles, and that the Gospel is the Good News, but never the Easy News.
Every parent has hopes and expectations for a newborn, and parents very often find that the growing child confounds those hopes. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary has gone from the Magnificat to worry and reproach. We see in her words a tension between love and dismay that will last until the Resurrection. She remembers the prophecies, she stores his words in her heart, and she does not understand what Jesus is doing. We would do well to remember that none of us do. We may be familiar with the Gospel stories through a lifetime of repetition, but the more closely we listen, the more disturbing and challenging they become.
Jesus explains his actions in words that bear more examination. In the NRSV, the translation is, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” but Dr. Ann Nyland, in the Source New Testament, translates that sentence as “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” and Luke Timothy Johnson, in the Sacra Pagina commentary on the Gospel of Luke, renders it as, “Did you not know that I must involve myself in my father’s affairs?” When Jesus aligns himself with the God who sent him, the emphasis is not just on presence, but on action. The action, in this case, is theological study, and Jesus is holding his own with the great scholars of his day. The Father’s business is not just fulfilling prophecies of messianic kingship: that business, the story tells us, has much to do with knowing God in new ways and finding new answers to old questions. All who heard Jesus, Luke tells us, were amazed at his understanding and his answers. The incarnate one, even as an adolescent, was a teacher among teachers, a teacher of scholars. He was, and is, one who calls us to question everything we think we know about him and about God.
That call to listen, to question, and to learn is difficult and sometimes frightening, but I find it a joyful call, because I have my own questions when I look at the stories in today’s lectionary readings. The reading from 1 Samuel is chosen to match the boy Samuel, who served at the temple and “grew up in the presence of the Lord,” with the boy Jesus. Elkanah is there, a woman who received the blessing of children and gave the first one to the service of her faith. Her faith and grief, and her husband’s love for her, were vividly described in earlier passages. As a teenaged feminist with the preconceptions of the 1970s, I would have assumed that she was just another woman who wanted what she was told to want, a domestic drudge. I would have judged her life, which was lived well within the norms of her culture, as having been somehow less worthwhile than that of a woman judge like Deborah. I now believe that we need not devalue what has not always been valued, or what has been valued as the exclusive work of a less valued class of persons. The work of keeping a home and raising children may not be the only work for a woman, but it is not a task to which authentic feminism is opposed: the opposition must be to those who would make it simultaneously compulsory and worth less than any other work. If I believe that Jesus challenges assumptions with which I disagree, I have to accept that he challenges mine as well.
The darker side of the story here is the part about Eli’s unnamed sons, who are using the unnamed women who serve at the tent of meeting for sex. Sexual abuse of those who serve and who hold no power, abuse practiced by those who do have power is present, noticed, and named as wrong, yet no one seems able to make it stop. No one values the women enough to protect them, and Eli’s protests, based on reputation rather than on the damage to the women, make no difference. The assumption about the men’s resistance to change in the text is that “it was the will of the Lord to kill them,” an assumption I wish I could discuss with Jesus. I cannot believe in a God who controls people and then kills them for acting under that control.
The passage from Colossians shows an understanding of human worth that is growing toward a life of mutuality and equality, but still tells wives to be subject to their husbands and children to obey without question. For its time, it is radical; for ours, it can be used for purposes that deny the changes its author sought to make in the ways we see each other. For centuries, passages like this have been used to send women back to abusive men, and children back to abusive parents, for centuries, with admonitions to husbands and fathers which have often been ignored. It is a first-century admonition from a culture very different from our own, and if we use it as a proof text, rather than considering it in the light of what we now know about power and inequality in relationships, we may do damage to people and to the Gospel message.
The Jesus we come to know in the gospels is one who would have stood up for the women outside the tent of meeting, who valued and taught women, who cared for children. His father’s business was to teach us, across cultures and across time, that we all have worth and that all our work matters.
The adolescent Jesus in today’s Gospel went home, as an adolescent should, with his parents and into their everyday life. One commentator waxed lyrical about the simplicity of that life as opposed to city and scholarly life: as a resident of a ranching community, I am deeply skeptical of such lyricism. Some lives may seem simple in comparison to others when viewed from the outside, but whatever our circumstances, there is complexity in any human life. Jesus did not give precedence to the scholarly life, small-town life, the lives of the rich, the lives of the poor, or city life: he spent time in all those lives, saw them, gave the same love and attention to everyone, and in doing so changed all human lives, giving them new significance. Like the scholars in the Temple, like people of faith in all times and places, we are still trying to learn what that means.