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The Politics of Scripture

Prophets Among Us—1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 and Luke 2:41-52

Where do we place ourselves in these narratives? What is our posture toward the prophets among us? Are we the prophetic children, the parents who tentatively support yet fear their calling, or the status quo that they oppose?

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
18Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod.19His 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.20Then 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. 26Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.

Luke 2:41-52
41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them.51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The lectionary readings for this week include two portraits of children growing into their role as prophets.

1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26 is almost cursory — a brief interlude that serves as a foil for the immoral and impious actions of Eli’s sons (2:12–17, 22–25). While Hophni and Phinehas butcher their priestly duties and take sexual advantage of women serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting, Samuel dutifully “ministers before the Lord” (2:18). He’s mentored by Eli and nurtured by his mother Hannah, who each year supplies him with a “little robe” (2:19). Supported by both family and temple, Samuel is primed to take on the prophetic and priestly calling that Eli’s own sons have neglected. “The boy Samuel,” the text concludes, “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” (2:26).

Luke offers us more detail. After the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem, the twelve-year-old Jesus wanders from his parents; they find him a full three days later “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). All are “amazed at his understanding and his answers” (2:47) — except for his parents, who react with anxiety and confusion (2:48, 50). When Mary questions him, Jesus gives a bewildering answer: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The text ends with a line that mirrors the 1 Samuel account: Jesus, like Samuel, “increases in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2:52).

The resemblance between these accounts is not accidental. Throughout his infancy narrative, Luke has already been casting Jesus in the guise of Samuel. The canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46–55) is patterned on the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10). Both stories feature a childless woman, a prayer answered in the temple, a boy dedicated to God’s service from before his birth. And both Jesus and Samuel demonstrate, even in their childhood, an uncommon aptitude for their roles of prophet, priest, and teacher: Jesus astonishes in the temple, while Samuel hears God’s call at a time when “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Samuel 3:1).

Despite their precociousness, Samuel and Jesus are still just children, only partway along the process of maturation and still learning how to take on their roles. This did not go unnoticed by earlier interpreters. The narrative of the boy Jesus in the temple was popular among Arius and his followers, who asked how Jesus could be “the eternal wisdom of God” yet also “so evidently human as… to be said to ‘increase in wisdom’?”[1]

It’s true that Jesus showcases no preternatural divine wisdom in this story. Instead, “Jesus is more precisely a listener in Luke’s account.”[2] He is receiving wisdom from his teachers: asking good questions, giving good answers, and displaying uncanny comprehension of the lessons he has received. By the beginning of his ministry, of course, Jesus has put this scriptural training to good use. In Luke 4:21 he opens the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims that the prophecy been “fulfilled in your hearing.” On the path to Emmaus, he draws on deep knowledge of the scriptures to make sense of his own death and resurrection (24:27). But in Luke 2, Jesus, like Samuel, is in training: cultivating the knowledge that will enable him to do his ministry.

Still, in both these childhood scenes lies the possibility of religious and political upheaval: whether they know it or not, the elderly priests and teachers of these accounts are training these youths not to follow in their footsteps but, eventually, to overthrow them. Samuel ends up delivering to Eli the prophetic word that his house will be punished forever (1 Sam 3:13), its iniquity “not… expiated by sacrifice or offering” (3:14). Eli’s priestly line will end, and Samuel take the reins instead.

Likewise, the very class of teachers from whom Jesus now learns about the scriptures will eventually clash with and condemn him (cf. Luke 20:1–2). His response to his mother — that the temple is “his Father’s house” — may have baffled those early listeners, but it also, ominously, foreshadows the cause of his own condemnation and death. The young stand in tension with the old: learning from them, yet ultimately supplanting them.

That capacity of the young to take on a prophetic role, one that clashes with their elders, continues in the present day. Earlier this year, fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg went on strike from school to protest global inaction on climate change; it was her “moral responsibility,” she argued, to do what she could when “nobody else is doing anything.”[3]

Likewise, eleven-year-old Mari Copeny or “Little Miss Flint” was thrust into the role of activist at the age of eight, after two years of living with poisoned water in Flint, MI.[4] Some of these prophetic children, like their biblical counterparts, have met with tragic endings: like sixth-grader Sandra Parks, who placed in a contest for an essay condemning gun violence and was shot and killed two years later.[5]

That children are the prophetic voices on these particular issues should not surprise: each of these issues has a disproportionate impact on the young. As climate change reshapes the contours of global life, it is children, not adults, who will have to adjust to the most staggering changes. Lead poisoning, likewise, poses the most physical and neurological danger to children, not their parents. And gun violence is tragic in any case, but all the more when a young life is cut dramatically short.

Children speak up when adults stay silent for a second reason: the concerns that keep adults silent simply don’t register with children. There’s little fear of reprisal in the actions of Greta Thunberg, no difficulty speaking truth to power for Mari Copeny. There’s no need to curry favor with the crowds (cf. Luke 20:5–7), no addiction to the abuse of one’s power nor temptation to take advantage of the weak (cf. 1 Sam 2:12–17, 22), no anxiety about the radical change that would be demanded.

Adults have more hesitations. Indeed, the two passages from this week’s reading are populated with adults who are reacting to — and attempting to make sense of — the prophetic children in their midst.

There are the teachers in the synagogue who first play the didactic role of imparting knowledge about the scriptures — then watch in amazement as Jesus far surpasses their assumptions about what a child is capable of. There is Hannah, Samuel’s mother, at once clinging to his childhood (and her motherhood) by outfitting him each year — yet still permitting, even encouraging, his prophetic vocation. There are Mary and Joseph, reacting with (justifiable) parental anxiety to their son’s absence — but also recognizing the wonder of what is happening with their son: Mary, Luke says, “treasured all these things in her heart” (2:51).

And, of course, still in the shadows of these two narratives are those powers that the young prophets will eventually supplant: the corrupt priests who exploit their followers for their own comfort and sexual pleasure; the empire that puts more stock in the human powers-that-be than it does the God of heaven; the “mighty” and “proud” and “rich” who will ultimately be humbled and cast down (1 Sam 2:4–5, 7–8; Luke 1:51–53).

The two texts pose the question: where do we place ourselves in these narratives? What is our posture toward the prophets among us? Are we the prophetic children, the parents who tentatively support yet fear their calling, or the status quo that they oppose? And how, finally, might we become “as a little child” (cf. Luke 18:17) — not just in receiving the gospel but in proclaiming it?

[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 50.

[2] Jeffrey, Luke, 49.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/01/swedish-15-year-old-cutting-class-to-fight-the-climate-crisis

[4] https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/a19485789/getting-to-work-with-little-miss-flint/

[5] https://www.npr.org/2018/11/22/670268418/milwaukee-girl-who-condemned-gun-violence-is-killed-by-bullet

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