By Sam Keyes
At the start of 1 Samuel 3, the Old Testament lesson for the Second Sunday after Epiphany this year, we heard this startling line: “And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”
It shows a sad situation, and Eli the priest is a clear sign of the times. He himself is nearly blind — though the text seems to use this more as a symbol for a kind of spiritual blindness, as he seems blind to the depravity and corruption of his own sons. His priestly dynasty largely rests in the hands of these wicked men, who openly steal from the temple and abuse their authority for the sake of their own immorality. No wonder the word of the Lord does not come to such wayward authorities. They are not interested in the word of the Lord. They are only interested in their own position.
It’s shocking, though of course if we have been paying any attention in recent decades, we know that this kind of situation is not too hard to find in contemporary political and religious life. We’ve seen it in the top levels of the Catholic hierarchy in this country and elsewhere; we’ve seen it in American government.
So when Samuel enters the scene here, at this transition moment between the Israelite “dark age” of the Judges and the future establishment of the kingdom of David, it seems like a breath of fresh air. He hears God’s voice. He responds to it in a way that the corrupt priesthood and leadership cannot.
It would be easy to pit these two things against one another — individual inspiration and corrupt institutional tradition. But the text would caution us against that. After all, Samuel does hear the voice of God, but he does not recognize it as the voice of God. He does not have the right experience or discipline to do so. And so amazingly, the priest Eli, chief symbol of the failure of the system, is the one who has the wit and wisdom to recognize what Samuel should do.
Perhaps this is a good lesson for us to remember whenever we are tempted, on the one hand, to rely too much on an anti-institutional sense of individual, prophetic leadership, or on the other hand, to rely too much on institutional inertia. God works through both. In a way this is the whole dynamic relationship in the Old Testament between the Law and the Prophets. The Law, on its own, gives a powerful stability and structure, but it does not give life without the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which comes not to destroy that structure but to give it meaning and focus in the particular moments of history.
This dynamism between tradition and novelty is also embedded in the relationship between Peter and Paul, the twin patrons of the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). Why Peter and Paul? They are of course the two apostles associated with Rome. In addition to their own feast days, they get a solemnity together at the end of June. So as the kind of dual apostles of Rome they have a special place in Catholic unity. Of course there’s more to it than that. It’s exactly that kind of dynamism between tradition and development that they represent. They are a unity, even while they represent different aspects of the tradition. Paul listens to the fresh voice of the Spirit, taking the gospel into ever new places, while Peter stands supporting him with the kind of solidity that can say “yes” or “no.” There’s no Samuel without Eli. But more importantly for us: there’s no Paul without Peter, no Peter without Paul.
Under the guidance and intercession of these two great apostles, may we seek the unity of all Christians, and follow their leadership into the mission that Christ has given us in the world.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.