When Saint Jerome famously declared “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” he was referring not only to the four gospels, but the whole of the Christian scriptures in both the old and new testaments. For much of this week, we will reflect especially on the readings that the liturgy offers us from the books of Samuel, seeking to discern how the lessons that God offers us in these scriptures can help us to grow in our knowledge of the life that God offers us in Christ.
As Christians, we believe that God’s relationship with Israel, God’s chosen people, can help each one of us understand how God deals with us as well. Today’s reading (1 Samuel 3) continues the story of young Samuel, whom God had given Hannah and whom Hannah has given back to God (cf. 1 Samuel 1-2). Samuel grows up in the temple of the LORD with the ark of God, as a child given over to God under the care of the prophet Eli. It seems that Samuel would be as familiar with the LORD as anyone could be. But it is not enough to just hang around God’s house to grow close to God. We see this in the sad example of Eli’s own sons, who tragically reject the ways of the LORD even in the LORD’s own house. But even as well-disposed as Samuel is towards the LORD, Samuel must let himself be stretched. The LORD reveals himself to Samuel, not as a part of Samuel’s interiority, as if God was some sort of “imaginary friend,” but as an Other who calls to Samuel from outside and waits for Samuel’s response.
God does not “explain all things” to Samuel directly, but rather wishes to make use of Eli’s instruction to dispose Samuel to hearing and responding to God’s voice. Whatever Eli’s other failings may be—and we do hear about them in 1 Samuel—Eli does fulfill his office of teaching and preparing Samuel in exactly the way that God wishes. This is something that we ought to bear in mind if we are ever tempted to turn away from the ministry of the Church because of the failings of her leaders. Flawed though they—and each one of us—may be, God still wishes to make use of them to lead us in his paths. Though God will chastise Eli for his failures (1 Sam 3:11-18), God nonetheless makes use of Eli to teach Samuel to say the words which we all need to learn to say to God as well: “speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”