We all like a fresh start. New beginnings are filled with hope and promise. A new mission, a new ministry, a new ordination, a new role of service, a new life. How is it that we become derailed so quickly?
The stories told in 1 Samuel hearken of hopeful beginnings in the priestly line, the prophetic line, and the kingly line, but it doesn't take long for each to go awry when motivations for a dynastic line supplant the Lord's command. Driven by base appetites, the sons of Eli abused their priestly office and treated the offering of the Lord with contempt. We have only to read the biblical stories that provide a warning against the contempt and corruption that seep in against the Lord's righteous establishment. And we must not lose hope when we see the Lord intervening with a new beginning.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And Fr. Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem joins as co-host. Hello, Fr. Timothy, I have to say I'm so grateful to partner with you week after week on this podcast.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:33
Well, okay. I'll take the compliment. I didn't get one yet today. Thanks, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 0:38
So last week, we looked at Hannah's story in the first chapter of I Samuel, and today we're going to look at chapter two, understanding more of why the Lord has to flip that reset button with his people Israel, and particularly the corrupt leaders who are the priests. I recently heard a story about the Polaroid company that grew to dominate the market in the 1970s and 80s by selling their film, and not their cameras, at a 73% profit. And when the digital camera began to take over their market share, they knew they needed to adapt and change. But when their R&D proposed a digital camera that they could sell at only a 38% profit, their leaders rejected the idea because it would be ludicrous to switch to a product that gave them only 38% profit when they could sell their hallmark product at 73% profit. Well, their greed and their entrenched leadership kept them from pivoting and they eventually went bankrupt. And so we see a similar problem with the priest Eli's sons in the biblical passage in I Samuel. The Levitical priestly order was established in such a way that the priests would be provided for through the sacrifices of the people. It was the practice that whenever people offered a sacrifice, the priest's servant would come with a fork to plunge into the cauldron of boiled meat, and whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take for himself. This way, they were always fed and always had enough to eat. But for Eli's sons, this wasn't enough. They wanted a bigger profit margin for themselves. They would no longer accept boiled meat, but would insist on the raw meat before the fat was burned off. Not only were the priests growing fat on the offerings, but they were taking advantage of the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The biblical text says "Eli's sons were scoundrels. They had no regard for the Lord." Their father, the priest Eli, rebuked his sons by laying out the purpose of their priestly business. He says, "If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender. But if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?" But his sons didn't listen, hence, the Lord must intervene with yet another reset button.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:10
Well, Hollie, first, I would like our listeners to ask a simple question, before there's even a temple, why a story already that attacks the very corruption of an emerging religious institution? I mean, this is a powerful story, because even before there's much development of the priesthood, and the whole temple complex and and the very sort of center of religious life, why already is there a story that shows the temptation of corruption amongst religious leaders? Because there's no kingship yet, this prophetic attack against the priestly leaders? Now it's done in a local story, right? Local story is something I want to focus on. Eli, an old man, the priesthood was dynastic. Right? Handed on to son, it was the tribe of Levi, you are a priest, not because of anything, but that was your service to God and to the community. And they use their position in the most inane, self centered, artificial greed. What I want us to realize, because it's a human problem, therefore, it's a generational problem. And that is leadership. Okay. Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative - leadership. We all start at the beginning. And usually it's a good beginning. And so I challenge our readers go read the Old Testament and pick out all the leaders where you have a story. They always start off good at the beginning, or young or just emerging, but that by the time they get to be old men, they fall dramatically, dramatically. So we're gonna see this here. We see Eli, he himself is not, but he's not paying attention to his sons who use their position and over time, are so corrupted. Now, I challenge our readers to read the rest of chapter two, and then chapter three, because God will judge them so harshly. And this is the problem with leadership and corruption, is somehow at some point leaders think they're beyond all of that, that they're the chosen of God, that they too are not under the thumb of the judgment of God. And once that happens, their ego takes over. And it can be political leaders, religious leaders, or whatnot. What terrorizes me about this story, is when God calls Eli to task for his sons, and describes the judgment that will take place, which is total annihilation, humiliation, they are completely disinherited. But one person is going to be left from their family to see the judgment. My point is, it's a story of warning. We're an institutionalized church, he can't be around for hundreds and hundreds of years without a whole structure. But at the end of the day, where is the leadership? Does it all become business? And then of course, there's the issue of funding. Once we have a structure, we have to fund it. I feel sorry, I'm a retired priest, and I thank God, why? because I'm outside of having to live with the pressure of the institution of having to fund and find funds for the church, for the building, for the insurances, for the programs for blah, blah, blah. And you can see that becomes a weight that overwhelms. And I'm saying how it cannot be any other way? It's not like we can create something that will sustain itself. And no, no, it comes with the reality. And so this is a story of warning, at the very beginning. And its application to us is apropos, because again, you and I think are on the same page where it says the human being, his basic problem or hers, does not change. So it repeats itself, one generation, next generation, and so on and so forth. This is a warning before even we get to the whole priestly complex in the temple and all that kind of stuff, which is a mega institution, compared to just like having a small parish in South Carolina, that smaller and ticky tacky and not going on about people coming faithfully to bring their offerings and so on and so forth, as opposed to having your Cathedral Church in New York City, and God knows how much, well I know how many millions were spent on recreating the shrine at 9-11. It's 90 million, okay, so as an example of how we lose what God is interested in, and therefore, our leaders, they become overwhelmed by it, and then they have to maintain it. I think leaders, political, religious, really are either overwhelmed by temptation, because then they have to be the Messiah. Or imagine that they're the Messiah, or those that don't and understand it, but still have the weight of it, just become depressed. The crisis of leadership is based upon being misguided.
Hollie Benton 8:27
I'm going to pick up on the crisis of the human. It starts with man, because this was before, like you said, the temple complex. We can't blame it on having to fund the temple building. And that's why there's corruption. It's the appetite of man, his sexual appetite, his food appetite, and this is where the sin lies.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 8:47
And therefore, to your point then, it makes them look more ridiculous. Because it's just base desires, food and sex, ok, which is the least profound.
Hollie Benton 8:58
That's right. So our passage for today comes from 1 Samuel chapter two, I'll start with verse 27. "And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, Thus the Lord has said, I revealed myself to the house of your father, when they were in Egypt, subject to the house of Pharaoh, and I chose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me, and I gave to the house of your father, all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. Why then look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings, which I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves upon the choices parts of every offering of my people Israel? Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel, declares, I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever. But now the Lord declares, Far be it for me. For those who honor me, I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength, and the strength of your father's house, so that there will not be an old man in your house." So we can see the sin of Eli's sons, the priests who treated the offering of the Lord with contempt, and this contempt will be their own undoing, as the Lord will cut them off for it. There are many instances throughout Scripture where the Lord rails against the priests and the rulers of the land. And still, each person, however lowly, must be accountable to the Lord with whatever responsibility given to steward. So Fr. Timothy, I know that the warning is against the priests here. But I think we all fall short. In what ways do we fatten ourselves and show contempt and dishonor to the Lord?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:02
Two problems. Just outright disregard of the commandments of God. In other words, what he expects from us, he expected from the priests and they didn't deliver. And the punch line is, "I'm bringing you to judgment and cutting you off." So we don't like that part of judgment. Somehow, we really think that through some sort of cheap forgiveness, that we're guaranteed, so this is gross neglect. But another thing I want to bring is out: our sin is that in fact we minimize, or we just twist the commandments and the demands of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount five through seven, and we just reduce it, make it more palatable to us, so that we appear to be righteous, or okay, or a good person. But in fact, it's a half truth. Those of us who are listening to this podcast, those of us who have religious faith in any capacity, whether it's an institutional priestly capacity, a teaching capacity, or just as a layperson, is how do we minimize the commandments, to make them softer, easier, palatable, which is almost as bad as complete disregard? Because full disregard is just gross. This is I think, where we have to be careful. What happens sometimes, is that in our behavior, we sometimes without knowing that consciously or without intent, we change vice into a virtue, pragmatism, turning vice into a virtue.
Hollie Benton 12:39
I am curious whether you think is Eli's sin is obvious? I mean, we hear it spoken, the Lord accuses him, "You honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves." So is Eli a conspirator in the same way that his sons are, or is it because he doesn't correct them harshly enough?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 13:00
Eli's sin is that he didn't rein in his sons. He's the father, pure and simple, because he saw what was going on. He may have rebuked them, but he didn't rein them in. It's dynasty all over again. It's impossible, impossible for fathers to not want to ensure the security of their legacy through their children, and not be objective. So this is a story of a priestly family, completely being brought into judgment for the corruption. And this again, is a watch out message. In the meantime, you have the new seed, which is Samuel, as a young boy, witnessing all of this because chapter three goes in and talks about Samuel's first call. Now he's not of the priestly line, he's of the prophetic line, which is always the one that God raises up to correct the institutional, king or priest. Samuel will begin, and he will then become the judge. So he will continue the story of the judges. This is a brief interlude about the corruption of one single priestly family. Now, I tell our readers, read the beginning of chapter eight. So it's not very far we're in chapter two and three. Where Samuel is an old man, and what does Samuel do? Because remember, I said earlier on how we always have a beginning, and then by the end, there's a train wreck. The office of judge is not dynastic. It's not because of who your ancestor was as an heir. It is appointed by God and God alone. It's random, like the prophets, you can't pass down the office of prophetism. God chooses it and that's it. Samuel is an old man. And what does Samuel do? He's just like Eli. He's an old man. So he appoints. He chose his two sons to be what? Judges over Israel which he does not have a right to do. And then they become corrupt just like the two sons of Eli. And that leads to the request for the king because the people cannot bear the corruption. The ask for a king, which is also a disaster, the rest of the story in the Old Testament is about the problem of kingship. So I just want to read it to understand how the writer begins to plant both the seed of redemption, and then how it all turns bad again. So again, just for the readers to see institutionalism when we take an office that is not institutionalized by its function, but becomes through time, priesthood, judge, then all of a sudden, it creates problems, and that God has to come in and start all over again by tearing it down and starting again. What can I say, Hollie, the biblical God is not . . . ah, well, he cannot be bought. He's not enamored with us. We are expendable. Any leader who doesn't understand that they are not the Messiah, no matter if they've lived in Jerusalem and visit the holy places, and ran institutes, they are not the Messiah. They're there, when their time is over, it's someone else's turn. And that's the difficulty. It's this problem of leadership transitions. When a person of leadership is retiring, or passes, there's a transition to new leadership. For those of us that retire, we think we want to find out who's going to replace me in my parish, and I've seen it more than once a complete and utter disaster about transitions of leadership. I've seen it in corporations, I've witnessed it in universities that I've been a part of. The transition of someone who was just faithful and did his job without ego, it's impossible to replace that person. Because there's not many people like that around. And so they want to control who the next one is. They want guarantees. They don't want what they've built to be destroyed, or go in a different direction. So it's a problem. The human being, he's appointed, does his or her job, when it's over, don't look back. It's someone else's turn now. It's not yours. You're no longer the priest, the Prophet, the King, the judge, the CEO, the head of an institute, head of an NGO or whatever. It's gone. And if you look back, that's your ego.
Hollie Benton 17:27
So not looking back, but looking forward with the judgment ever before us.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:31
Yes, yes. Because when you look back and see it broken down again, it'll break your heart. And you think it's all about you. Because people suffer, and I'm not immune to people suffering. It's a horrible thing. A lot of suffering in the world because of priests, bishops, and political leaders. It has not changed, and it will not change, sadly. And my gloomy outlook of the human being in my mere 68 years of living, which is so small. Oh, but thank God.
Hollie Benton 18:08
Lord have mercy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:09
Yes, have mercy.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai