by Father Mike Stubbs
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make any sound if there is no one to hear it? Similarly, if no one is listening to what God has to say, does that mean that God has not been speaking?
Sunday’s first reading — 1 Sm 3: 3b-10, 19 — describes Samuel’s call to serve God as a prophet. It explores the question of what it means to listen to God.
Only a young boy, Samuel has been working at the temple as a kind of apprentice. That is why he is sleeping inside the temple when God calls to him. Because of his occupation, one would assume that Samuel would be somewhat familiar with God. But our reading tells us: “At that time, Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not revealed anything to him as yet.”
In that respect, Samuel was not alone. The verse shortly before the reading tells us: “During the time young Samuel was minister to the Lord under Eli, a revelation of the Lord was uncommon and vision infrequent” (1 Sm 3:1).
The text does not offer any explanation for this state of affairs. At the same time, the text is highly critical of the current religious leadership under the priest Eli and his sons. They have been abusing their office by profiteering and engaging in sexual immorality (1 Sm 2:12-17, 22). They had ignored what God had been telling them through the law, the Torah. Why should God send them any special revelation?
Fittingly enough, the first message that God entrusts to Samuel, which we do not hear in our reading, concerns God’s displeasure with Eli’s family and how God plans to punish them. That suggests that the dearth of religious visions results from the failure of the religious leadership, rather than any unwillingness on God’s part to communicate.
In other words, God may have been attempting to speak to many other people before Samuel. The difference lies in that Samuel was willing to listen.
Samuel is open to a message from God, first of all, because he is open, period. He initially believes that the priest Eli is calling him. Samuel has not been focusing upon God and screening everyone else out. On the contrary, he is open to everyone.
It is only because of that openness that Samuel is able to listen to God and to serve God as a prophet: “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”
The question then arises: Does Samuel become a great prophet primarily because God has chosen to speak to him? Or, is it because Samuel has listened, that he becomes a great prophet? Similarly, we can ask ourselves: Has God spoken to me? Or, have I stopped and taken the time to listen?
Isn’t God really attempting to communicate to us all, but only a few have bothered to listen?