1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Luke 1:46-55
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a fan of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophecy setting the scene, in the gospel of Luke, for the social and religious upheaval that would begin in the life of her son, Jesus.
But Mary is far from the only woman in the Jewish tradition to have spoken words of this nature. Today, we heard a much, much older song, one which is far less well known, but every bit as powerful as Mary’s words. Indeed, you might even imagine that Mary had Hannah’s song in her mind as she prayed.
Hannah’s song comes at a time of relative stability in the life of the people of Israel. They have entered – invaded – the land, and established themselves as a loose alliance of tribes sharing a common identity through their history (especially the shared story of captivity in Egypt and freedom through the Exodus), and their monotheistic dedication to the one true God.
There was no formal leadership; the priests of Shiloh, Eli and his sons, were the nearest thing there was to a centralised priesthood, for though there was no temple, this was where Ark of the Covenant, the box holding the stones on which were carved the ten commandments, was kept. This was where people came, once a year, to fulfil their religious calling, to offer sacrifices to God, to give thanks, to ask for favour, to seek guidance.
When the people needed leadership, or disputes needed to be resolved, then there were the judges, men and women raised up by God as military leaders or to declare God’s judgement to settle the dispute.
And, as seems a universal feature of human society, there were the rich, and the poor. Those who by the fortune of birth or geography had found themselves with rich land, large herds, wealth to hire workers and further expand their influence; and those who scraped out a living or hired themselves out for a living wage.
But there was also (as also seems almost universal) there was also corruption. And particularly, in the context of our story, corruption within the system of religious worship to which the people looked. Eli’s sons, we read later in the chapter, were taking advantage of the advanced age of their father to abuse their positions as sons of the priest; to take the sacrifices brought to God for themselves, by threat or by force; to take advantage of the women who served in the house and those who came to pray (because you can do that sort of thing when you’re a powerful man), to take advantage of the piety of the faithful to live lives of relative luxury and ease, fearing neither God nor man.
And Hannah, the beloved but barren wife, came and sought of God her greatest desire – a child. And God granted her request.
But in our reading today she has come to give Samuel up. She had made this promise to God – grant me a child and I will dedicate him to you. As her husband had children by his other wife it may have been a move of wisdom – not for her family the sibling rivalry that beset the twelve sons (by four women) of Jacob.
Samuel will be a child of the house of the Lord, and will grow as the godly and honourable son that Eli never had.
A promised child. A corrupt religious system. A faithful woman of no particular importance.
And a son who would turn the system upside down.
In Hannah’s prophesy, all the marks of power and importance are inverted
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
not so different from Mary’s words
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
The promise of God, given through these two women of faith, is that things can change, things can be changed. God can change things. The status quo, the corruption of religion, the abuse by the powerful of the powerless, can be changed.
And it was. For Samuel would grow up speaking God’s words, and one of very first acts would be to declare the corruption of the sons of Eli, and pronounce God’s judgement on them. To cleanse the Temple, one might even say; a house of prayer which had become a den of robbers.
God’s promise is to restore justice, to remove the one who have abused their power, to raise up those who have been oppressed. And it happened, in the life of Samuel, in the life of Jesus.
But then what happens next?
By the of Samuel’s long life the people have rejected him; they still honour him in word, but insist that there must be a king; and so they get Saul, and then David, neither of who were exactly paragons of justice and virtue – the people might have looked back the kingdom of David as a glorious time, but not so much if you were Uriah or Bathsheba. And even that was a relative high point; for in the generations after Solomon the cycle of conflict, the struggle for power and the abuse thereof, the corruption of religion to those political ends, would all start again. The voices of the faithful women and men of God would be silenced by the voices of men of power.
And, sadly, the same has all too often been true of the movement of Jesus, the Church, the kingdom of God. The voices of the faithful, of those who seek justice, reconciliation, love of enemy, peace, all that hippy stuff, become replaced by the megaphone of those who would use religion to justify actions that are the exact opposite of the gospel of Jesus: the rejection of those who are in need and seek our help; the justification of discrimination; the protection of the status quo and the privilege of those who benefit from it.
We are called, each year, when we hear the words of Mary in the run up to Christmas; we are called as we hear the older words of Hannah ringing through the story; we are called as we come to this table to share together the meal at which all are equal as welcomed guests of God; we are called to reject, to speak out against, to condemn the use of our faith in the name of division, in the name of violence, in the name of oppression, in the name of discrimination, in the name of fear.
We are called to raise up the poor from the dust and sit them with princes; to fill the hungry with good things, even if it means that we, the rich, go hungry. We are called to break the bows of the mighty oppressor, and empower those who have been downtrodden.