Samuel was a pretty special child, born under extraordinary circumstances. Only after years of patient and not so patient waiting, does his mother finally conceive. Only after years of suffering abuse from her husbands other wife is his mothers wish to have children finally fulfilled.
Being childless was, at the time, an even more significant trauma than it is today. Apart from a personal tragedy it was also loaded with social stigma and involved significant loss of meaning for ones life and future.
A woman who could not or did not have children was regarded by the culture surrounding her as a failure, as somebody who did not meet her purpose in life.
But not only that. No children meant no future in two very significant ways.
First in a literal sense: In the days before social security one depended on the care of ones children in sickness and old age.
But not only that: At the time the book of Samuel was written heaven had not been invented yet and the only way to become part of the Kingdom of God, to be part of Gods future, would be through ones children and childrens children. So children were needed to help ensure the future, not only in a material sense but also in a spiritual sense.
This did not mean they were pampered and spoiled and cared for in the way we do our children. On the contrary. With the high child mortality rate and the hardship and poverty most people had to deal with, people could not afford to be too precious about their children. Most children, from a very young age, were put to work so they could help provide for their family. Very little attention was paid to their interests, their opinions, or their rights. Slaves had financial value, childrens primary value consisted in their capability to help provide for the family, both in the present as well as in the future.
Hannah, Samuels mother, it was believed at the time, would not be able to lay claim to the Kingdom other than through a child, and only a child or children of her own would be obliged to look after her in old age. If she didnt have children and her husband died she would be on her own, with nobody to care for her, and no part in Gods Kingdom. No children for her meant no future.
So it is with great joy and thankfulness that the birth of little Samuel is greeted. A joy expressed by Samuels mother in a song that will echo through the centuries until it is taken up by the young Mary, the girl who is to become the mother of Jesus Christ when she conceives: "My heart exults in the Lord, he has done great things "
A gift, this Samuel, a gift of God, to a woman who was seemingly without hope of ever conceiving a child and at the mercy of others who made her life misery.
A gift that is returned: As soon as the child is no longer dependent on his mother for food and shelter he is taken to the temple and left there, in the care of an old priest, to serve God.
Heartbreaking if you think about it: A child that has been so long in the making given up to God. Given back, as the ultimate sacrifice for the privilege of becoming part of future generations marching towards Gods Kingdom. As if to indicate that only being part of Gods Kingdom counts for this woman and all the rest is only of secondary importance to her. A very cruel thing for a religious system to condone and accept as commendable!
There may have been more mundane reasons however. The other wife and her many children cant have taken kindly to this little intruder and his mother who, through his birth, has now moved up considerably in the pecking order of family life. That may have had something to do with Samuel being taken to the temple too, we dont know. The story doesnt tell. We only know that Hannah entrusts her treasure, the son she has waited for for so long, to the care of God.
Whatever her motives were, that must have been a leap of faith. Especially considering the fact that the temple and the priests who served there werent, at the time, in particularly good nick. The story tells us institutionalised religion, was at an old time low, with corrupt priests neglecting their duties and adhering to very low moral standards, with the temple itself in disrepair and the money brought to the sanctuary by believers squandered by those who were responsible for its care.
We can be pretty sure that the roof of the temple had been neglected for quite some time, that the gutters hadnt been cleaned and the paintwork was looking very shabby, while those who were responsible for the handling of property and finance had a ball with the moneys that had been entrusted to them.
Not a very good environment to leave your child if you want him to grow up to be an upright and virtuous individual! And yet . that is exactly what his mother does.
She entrusts Samuel to the care of God and manages, somehow, to trust, that against all outward appearances her son will be cared for and looked after by the one that has made her this magnificent gift of grace. God.
In our baptismal service something similar happens.
Ruth and Rhonda handed little Samuel over to me as a symbol, as a sign of their trust that his fate, his future, in the end is not in their hands, but in the hands of God who has given them this life to care for in the first place. It is not quite as dramatic as bringing him to an old ramshackle building full of incompetent priests, but it is, in essence the same gesture: to let go, even for a couple of minutes, because they realise, because we realise, that this life is not ours, but Gods, that it is a gift given to us to care for and look after but not something that we self evidently own.
Young Samuel becomes the chief priests little helper. At his back and call day and night. A servant, insignificant and of no importance. Called upon in the middle of the night to help relieve the old man or bring him a drink of water.
Samuel . Samuel ..
Yes my Lord
So it becomes second nature for Samuel to answer, and he would probably been out of bed before he was fully awake, ready to do his duty, ready to serve.
Yes Lord, here I am Lord
Only this time it is not the old priest, but God who calls him. Calls him to a different service. Calls him to a life which will serve the reform and transformation of the people of Israel, standing up for the poor, fighting against injustice, and helping the helpless. Resisting the corrupt priesthood and actively involved in politics Samuel will crown the first king of Israel and bring him down, he will change the religious practices of his people, he will stand up against the mighty and perform miracles for the poor and powerless. He will become one of the greatest servants of God the bible knows.
At the moment of his call he is just another child, nothing special about him. Apart from the fact that he can hear Gods call where the adults around him seem to have lost that ability completely.
Two thousand years later Jesus who indignantly draws children into the middle of the circle of his followers when his disciples errect barriers and ban them from his presence. "Let the children come to me for it is for people like these that the Kingdom belongs." he says.
Theirs is the Kingdom says Jesus, it is them that get called to become part of Gods work in the world.
Not the priests who felt confident of their status, their place in the institution and in society who had lost all respect and awe for the grace of God. Who could not see this child as the gift he was, but used him, like they used everything else, to their own advantage. Not realizing that this child, this insignificant dogsbody, was actually the future of their country and their faith and not them or their institution.
And not the disciples who believed they were important enough to fight over which of them would be the sitting next to Jesus in the Kingdom of heaven but did not realise that only if they could let go of their self importance and confidence could they receive the grace of God, the blessings of God like those children did: as a totally unexpected and undeserved gift that includes even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant person in the work for Gods future and Gods Kingdom.
Not just children as the romantic, innocent, lovely little bundles they often are, but children as the smallest, most helpless, most dependent of creatures are put in the middle and contrasted with those who believe themselves to be home and dry. Children who are still open to hear the call because their ears are not obstructed by the self importance and pig headedness some adults suffer from in their delusional belief that their place in the Kingdom is self evident and secure even where they push others away who God himself has called to play their part in his future.
What both the stories tell us is that God often calls those who institutionalized religion or established followers of Jesus may not expect or even be prepared to welcome.
But that those who hear his call, who push through and ask for his blessing nevertheless, may find themselves at the forefront of realizing of Gods Kingdom in this world. Like Samuel, like Jesus, like many others whose ears were not blocked up by all sorts of unimportant stuff but could hear the call of God and receive his gift of love in their lives.