The Daily Office Readings today are difficult for leaders in the local church or other ministry settings. While you can’t just read off a one-to-one correlation between 1 Samuel or Luke and our current moment, it’s hard to miss the indictment.
In 1 Samuel 2:27-34, a man of god indicts Eli, the priest, for the less than stellar service his colleagues have been offering to the people of Israel; that’s a generous reading. Eli’s sons were apparently “wicked men,” not exactly a title to aspire to, especially as a priest.
They got this moniker by abuse of their priestly office. When the people of Israel would come to offer their sacrifices to the God who brought them out of Egypt, the priests would swoop in and grab the best bits for themselves.
And they were picky about it.
The priests wanted raw meat, not boiled. Maybe these priests were the first grill masters.
Quick aside–We translated the beginning of 1 Samuel in a Hebrew prose class. When we stumbled onto the “three-pronged fork” (2:13), there was wild speculation about its appearance. Was it a trident? Just an over-sized dinner fork? Did it have teeth and devour the sacrifices? Was it something from another world, or a sci-fi novel?
Read through chapter two and decide for yourself.
And we’re back.
The thieving priests, at least Eli’s sons, are promised death. Sound a bit harsh? to put it in perspective, these priests had upset the whole temple and sacrificial system. Provisions were in place for the priests to get all “offerings by fire” at the temple (2:28)–the grilled meat they wanted anyway. But, maybe it wasn’t enough.
So, they fattened themselves on the choice cuts. Forgetting the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, led them to the land, provided manna for their ancestors, set these priests apart as an office to serve God and the people of Israel. Oh, and did I mention, set up provisions for them to eat.
The wayward priests who don’t die might wish they had after their stomachs have rumbled long enough to beg a new faithful priest for a scrap of bread.
But it’s not just the priests who get it wrong. Jesus warns his disciples to stay away from the teachers of the law. You know, the ones with the long robes, and the best spot at the banquet. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Luke 20:47). Eli and his crew ate their fill, but these teachers of the law are consuming real estate! For their part, these teachers will be severely punished (20:47).
Pretty tough day at the office for both groups of leaders. But how did they get to this point? I doubt the priestly training program included a course in “How to defame the temple and the sacrifices of the people 101” (Required course materials: three-pronged fork). And the studies the teachers of the law completed probably didn’t include a class on how to design the best robe or get the best seat in the house at parties.
But somewhere along the way both groups forgot
what who they were to serve. Instead of focusing on the people bringing sacrifices or offerings–or the God these were being offered too, the leaders’ vision got a little myopic. It’s hard to look too far outside yourself if you have to watch where you step to make sure you don’t trip over the hem of your robe.
I could be wrong, both groups could have just been bad apples, who couldn’t get it right. But I see the tendency in my own life, and the lives of my peers and elders in ministry and the church, to become similarly self-focused. Eyes directed up or out, can quickly turn inward.
And that’s not always a bad thing. Self-care is good, we all know victims of ministry burn-out; people who were focused on others to their own detriment.
But in the end, it’s more about memory than sight. Remembering the God who brought Israel out of Egypt, remembering the God who brought us out of slavery to sin and death. Remembering I’m not that God. That’s freedom.
Because the other side of being self-focused, is thinking we (especially as teachers, leaders, priests, pastors, etc. in the church) have to do it on our own. We have to come up with the best sermon, book, discipleship program, mission strategy, fill in the blank. In other words, we think it’s about us.
So, sometimes we need a reminder that it’s not. Something like what Richard Hays admonished my entering class with at orientation: “It’s about God, stupid.”
Following Dean Hays’ example, I have that message on a note-card taped to my computer. It’s just so easy to forget, and reach for that choice cut or long, wavy robe.
Like many pastors say, I’m preaching to myself first, here.
It’s about God, stupid.