15th November 2015 - Hugh Perry
1Samuel 1: 4-20
We read the beginning of the book of Samuel which describes the significant details of Samuel’s birth. Hannah is the favourite wife of her husband Elkanah but expresses inadequacy, and indeed is tormented by Elkanah’s other wife because she has not had any children. Her husband suggests that he loves her more than ten sons. That has echoes the women of Bethlehem assuring Naomi that Ruth is more than seven sons to her. What we are also reminded of from that previous book is, that without sons, Ruth and Naomi were destitute and that would be Hannah’s fate if her husband died, especially as there seems to be rivalry with the other wife in the household.
In praying for a son Hannah promises that he will be a Nazirite, leading a life set apart and apprenticed to the priest Eli.
Mark 13: 1-8
Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel begins as they leave the Temple and one of Jesus’ disciples comments on the large stones and the large buildings. Jesus then predicts the destruction of the buildings which could have been the whole city or, as other gospel writers have interpreted, the Temple. Morna Hooker suggests that as this event is referenced in other context then it is likely to be an authentic saying of Jesus. Some of the Jesus seminar scholars agree with her although not enough to give it a most likely, or definitely the words of Jesus, rating.
In their Five Gospels translation the Jesus Seminar tell us ‘the temple was the centre, not only of the sacrificial cult, but also of the banking system, the meat industry, and the seat of political power in Jesus’ time.’ Therefore it is likely to have been commented on by Jesus because of his concern for the poor.
However a large number of scholars date Mark’s Gospel to just after the destruction of the temple in CE70 because of this prophecy. They reach that conclusion on the basis that it is easier to make a prediction with hindsight. Therefore we need to look at what Mark is telling us about the mission of Jesus by including this prediction.
Today’s Gospel reading is the beginning of the section that is often described as ‘the little apocalypse.’ Like the other apocalyptic texts people continue to use biblical metaphoric and poetic writing to predict the end of the world.
However this text was written for the political climate of the time and cannot be made to give simple answers for today’s world.
What it can do is invite us into the world of terror so many face in our world and ask questions about hope in such a world. The shape of hope will change from situation to situation and we may sometimes have to be satisfied with leaps of fantasy which defy oppression with poetry. There will also be times when the voice of Christ is clear to us and we will know what to do. In all situations the Christian calling is to be there to walk the discipleship journey, to share our vision and keep the light of love burning.
The destruction of the temple was an historical fact and for those involved it was the end of their world. For many it was also the end of their lives through starvation, crucifixion and straight forward brutal slaughter. Furthermore a good number of biblical scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel and therefore Matthew, Luke and John were written after the destruction of the temple. Nevertheless we need to ask why Mark included this prediction in his gospel. What does this periscope, or section of text, tell us about Jesus or how does it inspire us on our own discipleship journey?
The first reason for inclusion as, Morna Hooker points out, is that the conversation between Jesus and his disciples may well have happened and the mention of it in other context could be seen as backing up that proposition. However there is a significant point that is easily overlooked in the drama of the temple destruction and the vivid observation that we live in a violent world of war, earthquake and extreme natural events. Mark tells us that the Risen Christ replaces the temple as a means of access to the mystery we call God. In chapter 14 Mark builds on this concept through the false testimony at Jesus’ trial. ‘We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ (Mark 14:58)
To make the connection between temple and the Risen Christ even clearer John, in his gospel, builds on the Mark’s imagery and puts the accusers claim into Jesus’ mouth. Jesus answered them ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19) then after the audience rebuts such a possibility the gospel writer adds ‘But he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ (John 2:21)
Jesus is killed, destroyed, and in the resurrection tradition is restored to appear to his followers in three days. We should add to that from Mark’s description of the crucifixion in chapter 15 where at the moment of Jesus’ death we are told ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ (Mark 15:38)
That curtain separated of the holy of holies where only the priest could enter to intercede on behalf of the people. Mark spells out the Christian tradition that both priest and temple become redundant at Jesus’ death and all humanity has direct access to God through the divine image of the risen Christ. Mark and subsequent gospel writers build this concept by finding meaning in the historic destruction of the temple, the terror of that event and the subsequent chaos of the resulting dispersion. Certainly the text does not give us easy answers to the terror in our world. However understanding the context allows us to open our minds to the way the gospel writer finds meaning in his history. And it is the meaning that brings both challenge and understanding to the terror, exploitation and temptations of comfortable non-involvement of our own times.
The challenge to us one week out from the Sunday we celebrate the Realm of Christ is the question about where we look for leadership and hope in our world of terror and exploitation. Do we look for the violent heavenly intervention that brings a new and better world that many who attempt to find literal meaning in this text expect? Or do we grasp hold of Jesus’ advice that we live in a dangerous world and hope is found in our direct connection to the divine through the image we have of God in the Risen Christ? Today’s gospel text in fact suggests we find divine leadership and hope in the Christ who calls us to walk the hard journey where the Spirit inspires us to be Christ to others and live the divine realm into reality in generation upon generation.
Through the careful compiling of the lectionary Christian Tradition has linked this gospel reading to the to the very beginning of the Davidic monarchy and that also asks us questions about leadership, divine call and our involvement in the transformation we hope for. More significantly this saga, that runs from the birth of Samuel through to his anointing of David and beyond, shows how seemingly unrelated events link together to create real change. That concept complements the linking of Jesus’ death with the destruction of the temple and rebuts the direct divine intervention so often hoped for. Furthermore trawling through texts for signs of apocalyptic intervention leads many people to miss the real signs of God’s presence in our day to day lives.
Hannah’s plight was distressing and we can certainly imagine the tension between the two women. The story focusses on Hannah’s perspective but with very little imagination we can appreciate Peninnah’s grievances that lead her to torment Hannah. In having children Peninnah had fulfilled her obligation as a wife in a patriarchal society. However her husband shows his gratitude by lavishing his attention on his other childless wife, a practice not unheard of in our society. Certainly we don’t allow polygamous marriages although Bishop Spong once quipped that we still have polygamy in our society but only in its serial form. Smart remarks aside the mayor of our biggest city managed to succumb to the flattery of a younger woman. Even a popular prime minister with a sensitivity for the smell of uranium had similar issues in spite of his Methodist upbringing.
All that aside under the Law of Moses Peninnah did not have the right to a divorce and obtain half the household’s wealth and her husband was quite happy to keep both wives. So all she could do to maintain some form of self-esteem was to irritate Hannah. This only seemed to encourage their husband to lavish more affection on Hannah.
But Hannah desperately felt the pressure of Peninnah’s taunts and most likely the expectation of her culture. As mentioned in the introduction she probably also felt vulnerable with no sons of her own and therefore likely to be unwelcome in her own household if her husband died and leadership of the household passed to Peninnah’s son.
Regardless of the biological facts Hannah’s conception can’t avoid being seen as an answer to prayer. It promised salvation for Hannah because, even though she promised Samuel as an ascetic and apprentice to Eli, he will still have a responsibility to ensure the safety of his mother should she become a widow. This on its own is a story with a happy ending. But as we will see as we read on it is even more. Eli’s sons prove to be corrupt and the still small voice in night’s darkness calls Samuel, not only to a priestly vocation, but to become the anointer of the kings who lead Israel from a group of independent tribes to become a feudal monarchy.
A monarchy that under David sees its kings as ruling on God’s behalf although in reality they are only a step in the process that formed Jesus’ vision of ‘The Kingdom of God’. A realm that with Jesus’ death and the destruction of the temple comes to life in the vision of Jesus’ followers. Those followers of Jesus reflect of Jesus’ place in their scriptural tradition, share bread with each other and the stranger and find themselves in the presence of the risen Christ.
Regardless of the direction the emerging church took as it moved towards us todays gospel reading tells us that the early followers of Jesus were not looking for a dramatic intervention by heavenly forces. Today’s text tells us they were aware of the risk of false messiahs and the fallacy of reading extreme natural events or human violence as preparation for a new world order. For the early followers of Jesus the new world order had begun with Jesus’ mission and their role as his apostles was to continue that mission and spread that message to make disciples and apostles of others. The new world order made the destroyed temple redundant as Christ brought a living relationship with God to all who accepted it. The realm of Christ does not arrive through military action or the conquest of earthly empires by heavenly armies. The divine realm, like the influence of Hannah’s prayers, arrives by the small unnoticed miracles that weave their way through history towards amazing transformation of both individuals and human society.
We restart and continue that quiet transformation journey every time we remember Jesus by sharing bread and drink with each other and with the stranger we meet along the way.
 Morna D Hooker The Gospel According To Mark (London: A&C Black1991), p.304.
 Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar ,The Five Gospels (New York: Scribner, 1996), p.109