One of the joys I’ve had in this life is the time I’ve spent with youth and young children. Their perspective on life is untainted, pure, and honest–at least at the youngest end of the spectrum. Our modern culture shatters innocence far too early. As a reluctant middle school pastor, I learned this years ago. Young boys and girls became men and women well before years should allow. Whether we point to technology, pornography, or both, the family unit continues to unravel from the inside out. Domestic violence is on the rise. Divorce cripples families. Children are sold at an epidemic rate into human trafficking mayhem for which we are only partially aware. Mental illness among the youth continues to rise, and suicide is seen as the only way to stop the pain for too many beautiful children of God.1
Such agony is not new to our world and not unique to our culture. Digging deep into Hebrew history, take a look at one of the heroes of the Bible: Hannah.
In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 1 Samuel 1:10
We are only given a few verses to understand the context for this scene. Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. (I’m not going to discuss polygamy.) Though he cared for her most, she was not able to have children and was aggressively looked down upon by her rival. Culturally, she was an outcast who, at best, was pitied by the world. As we wade into the story, Hannah is deeply depressed, yet faithfully worships the Lord at the temple. Showing herself in public must have been humiliating. Eli notices.
There’s a humorous twist in the plot as Eli mistook Hannah for one who was drunk. Note to self: don’t be too quick to judge! Fortunately, Eli was able to look beyond outward appearances and see that this young lady was distraught. With a simple gesture, he changed the trajectory of Hannah’s life and the direction of Hebrew history.
Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’ 1 Samuel 1:17
Most of the time, we read the verse above and continue along our way, but this is an extravagant statement. Eli is the High Priest. His words carry tremendous weight. In our culture, we toss words around carelessly, but Eli was not making a flippant comment to dismiss Hannah, nor was he trying to cover for his mistake. Eli was moved by her statement and was deftly attune to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I cannot possibly explain the importance of his response. Hannah understands:
She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.’ Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. 1 Samuel 1:18
Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the mighty prophet we know as Samuel. She returned to the temple when Samuel was of age along with a bull as her sacrificial offering. She reminded Eli of their meeting years earlier, then fulfills her promise:
So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” And he worshiped the Lord there. 1 Samuel 1:28
She had no idea what this would ultimately mean to the people of God. There was no way she could have foreseen years into the future when Samuel would verbally hear God’s call. Eli didn’t know either. There was no band playing, no flashing lights, no haze machine setting the mood. In my imagination, it was just a typical day at the temple. Eli was going about his business accepting offerings and making sacrifices. Nothing special. He was merely doing what God called him to do, and both were faithful. They listened to the prompting of the Spirit without any promise of fame or fortune. Samuel became Eli’s very young apprentice and worshiped the Lord.
Hannah was so moved that she wrote a prayer to capture the moment (I think of it as a song). Her song is what prompted this particular entry into our discussion of serving the poor. I had to set up these few verses by providing some background. I hope you are now prepared to hear her words.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;
on them he has set the world.
1 Samuel 2:8
Oh yes, I cherry-picked the verses that speak to exalting the needy. Please forgive my laser focus on the topic. But hear Hannah’s words as someone who was rejected by society, her family, and her neighbors. In those days, perhaps even now, those with problems were seen as unrepentant sinners. There was a simple cause-effect relationship to sin. And people weren’t shy about pointing this out.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and observe our society. Many people point to those who are homeless, imprisoned, poor, and needy as those who have made unwise decisions and cast them out as a result. We’ve learned to avert our eyes from those in need, but God does not forget. His plan is to set crowns on the heads of those who call Jesus their Lord and Savior. God will set the poor beside the prince, the desperate next to the princess, he will raise the downcast.
Allow me to offer one more quick thought about the two main characters in this story, Hannah and Eli. Hannah is clearly the hero, the one we honor most in this story. She grabs the headlines and deserves the recognition for her actions. But let’s not forget Eli. As you go about your ministry today, preparing your place to receive people, making sure things are tidy and well kept, may I suggest you look at Eli in this story. Your role is just like his. Day after day, you offer your work as a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord without any knowledge of Hannah’s that might wander into your presence.
Keep up the excellent work, Eli. Now, go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.
1 I’m not a fan of citing news articles, but there are many articles and volumes of data on the topic. Nonetheless, forgive me for using a Washington Post news article.