Samuel the Prophet: Messenger of Justice and Forgiveness

1 Corinthians 9:1-12, Matthew 18:23-25; 1 Samuel/Kingdoms 12:3-25; 1 Samuel/1 Kingdoms 28; Psalm 99:6-9; Sirach 46:13-20

Our readings for the eleventh Sunday of Matthew happily correspond this year with our remembrance of the Holy Prophet and last of the Judges of Israel, Samuel. The themes of both the epistle and the gospel reading lead us to think about the special characteristics of this righteous leader from the early years of Israel. It was Samuel who led the fledgling nation at the end of the period of the Judges, and who anointed both Saul and David as king over the people. He had a long period of influence, from his call by the LORD as a young boy in the temple, to his final words to Israel as he handed over the baton to the kings, when Israel became a monarchy.

In our epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul reminds us of the special intimacy that God’s people can have with their human leader, including the possibility that this leader may be unjustly criticized by those for whom he cares. In 1 Corinthians 9, the first twelve verses, the apostle finds himself forced to engage in a kind of defense of himself to some of his own people, because they have listened to the slander of some outspoken, and seemingly charismatic would-be leaders of their church. He says that the very existence of the Corinthian church is his best defense, because it was he who first brought them the gospel. And then he goes on to talk about fairness, and how as their leader he has a claim on their support; he has worked hard for them, yet he has not made use of this privilege. Instead, he has paid for his own expenses. By speaking this way, he is asking them to remember his righteous behavior, and his complete disinterest in their material wealth. He is beyond reproach, not taking from them anything, not even the support that they owed him! He is willing, he says go to without, so that no one can say that he is in it for the money, and so dismiss the claims of the gospel that he is preaching: “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ.”

Nothing changes, it seems. Remember how the Israelite people, despite all the wonders that they had seen, clamored for a king, so that they might be just like the other nations. Samuel is hurt by their request, for he has served them faithfully as God’s judge over Israel. God, indeed, comforts him by saying that by their request the people are not really rejecting him, but questioning the good providence of the LORD himself. So God gives into the people, though a theocracy and not a monarchy is God’s will for them. Subsequently, when Samuel presents before them Saul, the LORD’s anointed, the prophet warns them about what they have done, that their desire to be like the other nations is in fact sinful. And he makes sure that they declare before him, the LORD, and the new king, that he himself has been a faithful leader. He is passing on the whole of God’s people, with their belongings, intact to the anointed king.

Here I am; testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose ass have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.” They said, “You have not defrauded us or oppressed us or taken anything from any man’s hand.” And he said to them, “The LORD is witness against you, and His anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” And they said, “He is witness.” And Samuel said to the people, “The LORD is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Samuel/Kingdoms 12:3-6 RSV)

Both Paul and Samuel call on what the people know in order to demonstrate that they have given their service without oppression or injustice. They have not used their power to benefit themselves, but only to help the people. Indeed, they are not giving these defenses of themselves mainly to preserve their own reputation. Rather, they care for the honor of God, the One who called and who equipped them for their ministry. Honesty is the hallmark of God’s servants, whether judge or apostle, because it echoes the righteousness and justice of God, their Master. The book of Sirach summarizes the exemplary conduct and leadership of Samuel, who had given his life to God at an early age, and remained consistent to his commitment until his death:

Samuel, beloved by his Lord, a prophet of the Lord, established the kingdom and anointed rulers over his people. By the law of the Lord he judged the congregation, and the Lord watched over Jacob. By his faithfulness he was proved to be a prophet, and by his words he became known as a trustworthy seer. He called upon the Lord, the Mighty One, when his enemies pressed him on every side, and he offered in sacrifice a sucking lamb. Then the Lord thundered from heaven, and made His voice heard with a mighty sound; and He wiped out the leaders of the people of Tyre and all the rulers of the Philistines. Before the time of his eternal sleep, Samuel called men to witness before the Lord and His anointed: “I have not taken any one’s property, not so much as a pair of shoes.” And no man accused him. Even after he had fallen asleep he prophesied and revealed to the king his death, and lifted up his voice out of the earth in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people. (Sir 46:13-20 RSV)

The last part of this passage refers, of course, to the strange episode where the witch of Endor is trying to foresee the future for Saul, as he is beset on all sides by the Philistines. Samuel speaks to Saul even from the bosom of Abraham, reminding him that God has already given the kingdom to David, because of Saul’s faithlessness, and sounding a word of judgment: he will indeed fall before the Philistines (1 Samuel/1 Kingdoms 28). Samuel had, throughout his life, and even after it, the task to sound God’s warning and judgment, not because God is a hard taskmaster, but because God cares for His wayward people. Indeed, if we flash back to the scene in which Samuel presents the king to the people, and requires them to exonerate him from all wrongdoing, we see this particular calling of leaders, and the reason that God exacts judgment:

“Fear not [Samuel tells the people]; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after vain things which cannot profit or save, for they are vain. For the LORD will not cast away His people, for His great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for Himself. Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD, and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” (1 Samuel/Kingdoms 12:20-25 RSV)

We may think that such warnings are only for the more primitive and harsher times of the Old Testament. However, it is salutary to remember that the Lord Jesus himself, our Prophet, Priest and King, issues many warnings about seeking the narrow way, and indeed enacts a word of judgment upon his own people when he overturns the tables in the Temple. All of these warnings and judgments, however, are aimed to turn wayward people back to God, no matter what their national affiliation or culture. Israel herself, beloved by God (“O Jerusalem,” cries Jesus in agony!), is being urged back to her Lord by the very calling of the Gentiles, says the apostle Paul in Romans 11. God’s love is irrevocable, and His intention, even in warning and judgment, is for our good.

The utter holiness of God remains a steady characteristic upon which we can rely, through the ages. And so in the Psalter we hear of this faithfulness, as well as of God’s faithful servant, Samuel:

The Lord is king: let the people rage; it is he that sits upon the cherubs, let the earth be moved.
The Lord is great in Sion, and is high over all the people.
Let them give thanks to thy great name; for it is terrible and holy.
And the king’s honour loves judgment; thou hast prepared equity, thou hast wrought judgment and justice in Jacob.
Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool; for he is holy.
Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his testimonies, and the statutes that he gave them.
O LORD our God, thou didst answer them; thou wast a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy!

(Psalm 98, LXX, 99:6-9 RSV)

Samuel called out to God, and He heard him. One of the things that he called out to God for was mercy and forgiveness of the sins of Israel. During his lifetime, Samuel was a great intercessor for his people, declaring the forgiveness of their LORD: “For the LORD will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake.” Similarly, St. Paul prayed on behalf of the Corinthians, earnestly seeking to present them “as a pure bride to her one husband”, the LORD (2 Cor 11:2). With our epistle reading and the stories of the great Samuel, we are brought back to basics. We are reminded of the absolute holiness of God, of His way set before us, and of His desire that we should follow this and so fulfil our calling as his holy children. Judgment is set in the context of God’s love and will for our lives, not as opposed to it! Along with words of warning is the promise of repentance for any who turn. Yet even with the offer of repentance comes a responsibility, as our gospel reading reminds us:

The Lord spoke this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

This week we may be particularly aware of the recriminations and hatred that can arise in a society, even among those who claim to be Christians. The buzz on the internet, especially on FB, following the events in Virginia, is not entirely helpful, though it is understandable that everyone should want to weigh in on what is happening in our nation. As Orthodox Christians we have a responsibility to speak with care, not in knee-jerk reaction, and to remember both our legacy against ethnophyletism, as well as the culture of freedom which has come to our nation as a result of its Christian (or at least theistic) national forefathers. The pattern laid before us is a salutary one: let us remember Samuel, who judged with impartiality, who interceded for his people, who called them to account, and who held out God’s word of forgiveness. Consider that he gave his counsel even when the people had chosen a manner of government that was not God’s first choice! This same pattern is seen in the agonized and hopeful ministry of St. Paul, who continued to intercede for his own people, the Jews, even after so many had not seen the time of their visitation by the LORD. He also overcame his own prejudices to extend the gospel to the Gentiles, those whom he had once considered unclean. It was from the mouth of this onetime nationalist supremacist that we hear the wonderful gospel of reconciliation, and the declaration that there is no Jew or Gentile. People can change. With this in mind, we too are called to think (and speak!) carefully about justice, mercy, judgment, forgiveness, and repentance. We are called to remember that God’s judgment is sounded for the purpose of bringing those whom He loves—all his creation—to repentance. We are called to pray and seek the best for those with whom we agree and those whose actions we find deplorable. In all this, we are called to remember that we, too, stand in need of forgiveness, and not to allow our desire for righteousness to be marred by self-righteousness or moral preening.

The fast is over. But let us end this Church year still in penitence, still in remembrance, and asking for the intercessions (both for us and for our nation) of those who now see His face in glory—including the righteous prophet and intercessor Samuel, the feisty and tender apostle Paul, and our loving mother, the Theotokos.

Ndeed,

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