Hannah and Elkana might be the progenitors of modern helicopter parents. Admittedly, they didn’t hover over Samuel during his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, but they did something equally as obsessive. Hanna said to her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.” (1 Sam 1:22)
Today, such an action would have caused Hanna and Elkana to be the recipients of copious shaming. Our sensibilities are deeply offended by the thought that parents would deny their child a freely chosen lifestyle. For quite a number of years, many parents have had so much respect for their children’s freedom that they have refused to have children baptized or confirmed, leaving their children completely free from knowledge of God. Hanna and Elkana were, obviously, deeply insensitive and incredibly over-bearing.
Hanna’s actions, in particular, seem completely irrational. The beginning of the book of First Samuel (not included in today’s reading), says that Hanna was ashamed that she had produced no children for her husband. She went to the Temple at Shiloh weeping and praying that God would remove her many years of shame by granting her a son. Incredibly, her response to receiving the son she longed for was to leave him in the Temple as a servant to the high priest.
If Hanna was alive today, she’d be on an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. She received a son after many years of barrenness and her response to her good fortune was to relinquish the son in a way that permanently impinged on his freedom. There is great potential here for the sort of televised brawl that keeps Jerry’s viewership ratings high. At the very least, Hanna would have been expected to pay for Samuel’s many years of psychotherapy.
The meaning of the story, of course, is far from modern perceptions of Hanna’s actions. On a very practical level, Hanna was able to shame her shamers many times over. Not only did she have a child in her later years, but the child became part of the staff of the prestigious Shiloh Temple. Both Hanna and her husband would be able to brag about this for the rest of their lives. Samuel, for his part, became quite famous because of the unusual aspects of the early years of his life.
It is, however, the religious meaning of the story that is of the greatest importance. Later in life, Samuel became a widely respected prophet. Among other things, he anointed David as King to succeed Saul. His mother did not, in fact, restrict his freedom by dedicating him to God’s service. Rather, she participated in God’s plan to guide God’s People. She would probably be judged harshly today, but that’s because our cultural values are extremely shallow, materialistic, and self-serving. Hanna was a deeply faithful woman who had a deeply faithful son who led many people to greater faith.
At the time this story was written down, it was used as an example of how to live faithfully when one’s life is beset by turmoil and loss. The story is still pertinent today. The lives of Hanna, Elkana, and Samuel provide a diagnosis of how and where organized religion has lost its way.
We live in an era of distrust. The default response to almost anyone who makes any truth claim whatsoever is to distrust the claim. Consequently, civil governments, court systems, private businesses, religions, and social leaders are automatically and unthinkingly distrusted by almost everyone. With regard to religion, the cultural distrust that is characteristic of post-modern society has led to the steady, on-going decline in participation in organized religion.
On Tuesday of last week, there were very large crowds at the Vigil Mass for Christmas. Thirty years ago, the crowds would have been at least twice as large as this year. Participation in organized religion continues to decline, not because people don’t want to believe but because they don’t know what to believe in.
Hanna, Elkana, and Samuel did not struggle with their religious practices because they did not see their religious practices as something separate from the rest of their lives. Their religion was deeply woven into the fabric of their daily activities and their knowledge of God’s nature led them to trust God implicitly. When the priest Eli assured Hanna that she would have a son, she went home satisfied because she knew God to be trustworthy. When she left the infant Samuel in the Temple at Shiloh, she did so without regret because she trusted that the God who had guided her would guide her son. As an old man, Samuel rejected all of the sons of Jesse except the least likely candidate for kingship; he did so because he had a lifetime’s experience of knowing God’s presence and guidance.
It is too facile to judge contemporary society as faithless. It is true that lack of faith in God is at record levels and growing. That widespread lack of faith, however, has its origin in a separate phenomenon. It isn’t really the case that the majority do not think God exists; it is, rather, that the majority don’t know who God is. Most people presume the existence of a God, but for most of them, God is generic or notional or distant from the world or slightly disinterested or untrustworthy. I’m quite convinced that most people, including those who profess atheism, would readily believe in God if they had an adequate knowledge of who God is.
Hanna and Elkana behaved in a highly unusual way with regard to Samuel, the child of their old age. They did so because trust in God was their daily, default response to life’s blessings and challenges. Their behavior seems strange today, but not because their behavior was inappropriate.
It isn’t the faithful people of the past who suffer from pathological delusions. It is our contemporary delusion about the indeterminacy of human existence that produces so much pathology in our society.
The cure for disbelief isn’t simply to believe; rather, it is to come to know the One who invites us to receive the blessings of belief. Hanna and her family found God present in their struggles and in their mutual love. God is still waiting to be found and we, today, still have the opportunity to come to know the God who is always trustworthy.