Homily for Thursday of the 1st Wk in Ordinary Time, 13 Jan 2022, 1Sam 4, 1-11, Mk 1:40-45

Today’s first reading is a very tragic story. It is a story of defeat for Israel in their battle against the Philistines. What led to their defeat? Well, they insulted God by using the ark of the covenant as their lucky charm while fighting their battle, with the hope that it would bring them good luck and lead them to victory. Instead of bringing them good luck, it brought them bad luck. We need a little background to understand why.

Yesterday we read from the previous chapter of the same book, the story of the young altar server, Samuel. We heard the fascinating story of a young boy who was awakened four times in his sleep by a voice that he did not know came from God. Three times he kept going to his master Eli the priest, thinking that it was the old man who was calling him. It was not until the fourth call that he responded properly to the call, upon the instruction of Eli. He said, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And the Lord spoke to him.

The story that we read yesterday ended that way. If you were listening carefully to it, you should have reacted and said, “And then what? What did God say to Samuel?” In Tagalog we would say, “Pambihira naman, bitin ang istorya.” (The story is left hanging.) I would have expected today’s first reading to begin where yesterday’s story was interrupted. But it does not. It proceeds immediately to the battle of Israel with the Philistines, which ends in a tragic defeat.

Let me therefore fill up the gap. “What was the Lord’s message to the young boy Samuel?” The story actually tells it, but that part was omitted yesterday. We are told that the old priest Eli waited until the following morning to ask the boy, “What did the Lord tell you?” The message was not a good news at all to Eli so the boy hesitated. But after some prodding by his master, he said it anyway.

The message was a warning. God was very displeased with the corrupt, arrogant and violent behavior of the sons of Eli—Hophni and Phinehas. They were the ones who were about to succeed Eli in leading the Israelite people. But did the old priest listen? Did he heed God’s message and discipline his sons? No, he did not. He allowed them to carry on with their wickedness. In short, he was an enabler.

Fast forward now to our reading today, Eli is quite old already and his sons have taken over leadership. They were the aggressive type who were too eager to kill and destroy their enemies, the Philistines. But when they realized that their enemies were having the advantage over against them, they thought of a solution. And that was, to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them in battle and use it as their lucky charm against their enemies. The result is tragic. They lose miserably. Thirty thousand of their soldiers get killed in battle.

Did the Lord forsake them? No. It was they who had forsaken the Lord. They behaved like pious worshippers, carrying the ark of the covenant on their shoulders. But they were actually desecrating it by turning it into an object of superstition, a lucky charm or a talisman to bring them good luck, an idol venerated the pagan style. (We often tend to do this ourselves, don’t we?)

The wicked sons of Eli even had the gall to act as the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant; but they themselves violated the commandments. They were never interested in keeping the faith and being faithful to the covenant. They killed, they lied, they stole, they worshipped their own power, wealth and prestige. They venerated the ark but they insulted God with their wicked ways.

The Lord was with them but THEY WERE NOT WITH THE LORD. The Lord had sent them a prophet to warn them, but they did not listen to him. They had become very stiff-necked and hard-headed. They were very religious but very immoral and unspiritual in their ways.

When we go through difficult times like this pandemic, and we feel like lamenting to God and asking why he has forsaken us, perhaps we should imagine the opposite—God lamenting and asking us why we have forsaken him.