1 Samuel 2:1-10; Romans 12:9-16
If you’ve been coming to this church for a while, you probably know that, at Washington City, we take the whole Bible as our scriptures but we try to emphasize the words that Jesus taught during his ministry on earth. When asked what the greatest commandments were, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-38).
In light of this, we recognize that as followers of Jesus, we are called to have our actions, our thoughts, and our attitudes defined by love. We’re called to love. Great! But what exactly does that look like? Sometimes it’s difficult to think about love beyond a warm or sentimental feeling – and this is how our culture often defines love (feeling love). Yet we see in Scripture that love is defined both as the expression of certain healthy traits and actions – and also as the absence of specific unhealthy traits and actions. One of the most well-known scripture passages about love, 1 Corinthians 13, represents this very well. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not selfish, love is not self-seeking, love is not rude. Several other passages in scripture, including today’s text in Romans 12, help us learn how love is manifested beyond vague warm fuzzies. They say, “Love looks like this. Or this doesn’t look like love.”
Reading today’s passages in 1 Samuel and in Romans 12, I was confronted with the topic of arrogance. Both of them mention arrogance. In Hannah’s prayer, she declares, “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (v. 3). In Romans 12, the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, saying, “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:16).
Arrogance, as defined by Webster’s English Dictionary, is “the act or quality of having unwarranted pride or self-importance.” A second definition is “haughtiness.” Haughtiness isn’t a term we use much: to be haughty is to be “proud and disdainful; having a high opinion of oneself, with some contempt for others.” Arrogance doesn’t mesh well with love. Arrogance promotes the self; love lifts others up. Arrogance says that the self is the most important; love prioritizes the needs of others.
There are three truths about love and arrogance that I see in today’s scriptures. First, we see that the world teaches us that people with status are worthy of respect and people without status are worthy of ridicule. Second, we see that the LORD, Yahweh, is the One who re-orders the world and turns upside-down the status system as we know it. He lifts up the lowly, he gives barren women children, and he fills the hungry with food. Third and finally, we see that followers of Jesus are called to live out God’s Kingdom and continue to flip the world on its head—fleeing from arrogance and loving all the people whom the world says are nothing.
Those Who Have Status Have Respect
We’re approaching the 2 year anniversary of the Federal government shutdown in 2013. Of all the political discourse from that time, one of the most memorable items to me is a facebook post. Metro had been pretty deserted for a few weeks. When the shutdown finished, Metro ridership increased back to normal as government employees and contractors were able to head back to work. A friend of mine on facebook wrote: “It’s so lovely to see all the DC commuters on the Metro looking busy and self-important again…” As you probably know, it’s not uncommon in DC to encounter people who have power or influence or who think they are pretty important. It would be interesting to know by some psychosocial measurement – which U.S. city would rank the highest for the most self-important or arrogant people. I wouldn’t doubt that DC would be close to the top, but we’d probably have some fierce competition from other cities.
People have a tendency to conflate power or money or some other type of status as being related to a person’s self-worth. Net worth is often conflated with self-worth. Even if it isn’t said explicitly (though it often is), our media imply that people with status are more worthy as human beings. Important people have the right look, the right clothes, the right size, the right job, the right type of family background. People without these things are less important – less worthy of time, of interest, or of kindness. Unfortunately, this seems to be a consistent problem with humanity – for millennia, we’ve been trying to say who is in and who is out, who deserves shame and who deserves honor.
Hannah and Peninnah – Arrogance and Honor
The context of one of our passages, 1 Samuel 2, is a context of shame and derision, based on a person’s social status. Before we talk about chapter 2, we need to understand what happened in chapter 1. To situate our passage in history, the book of 1 Samuel starts after the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, after they wandered through the wilderness, and after they entered the Promised Land. It starts at the end of the time of the Judges, some leaders and some heroes who helped the people of Israel get through a chaotic time. When we arrive in 1 Samuel, this is a time before Israel had any kings and before the temple was built in Jerusalem.
In chapter 1, we first meet a man named Elkanah, who is an Israelite from the tribe of Ephraim. Elkanah has two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. We learn right away that Peninnah has children, while Hannah does not have any children. Aside from the fact that he has two wives, Elkanah seems to be a somewhat decent guy. He goes up to Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was, and completes the yearly sacrifices to Yahweh. He gives portions to Peninnah and to Hannah to sacrifice so that they too can fulfill their ritual duties within Mosaic Law. But as could be expected with polygamy, all is not well in their household.
In ancient times, infertility was considered a curse and children were the ultimate blessing for a woman. Children were thought to be a stamp of God’s approval; not being able to have children was like a stain on your individual moral and religious character. Peninnah regularly mocks and derides Hannah for her infertility. Peninnah judges Hannah as not worthy because their culture said that she wasn’t worthy. Eventually, this wears Hannah’s spirit down: she weeps and won’t eat.
Yet Hannah does not remain passive – she sets out to intercede before Yahweh at the house of worship. Hannah asks the LORD to see her misery. She vows that if she conceives, she will dedicate her firstborn son to the LORD as a Nazirite. The priest Eli sees her lips moving in prayer and thinks she’s a drunk woman. He berates her but she stops him saying, “Actually, I’m just a desperate woman praying before the LORD. Don’t think that I’m a worthless woman – I’m just praying to God.” Eli realizes his mistake and blesses Hannah. Hannah goes on her way, conceives, and bears a child whom she names Samuel. When Samuel is no longer nursing, Hannah brings him to the house of worship, offers a sacrifice, and gives Samuel over into Eli’s care.
Then, we get to the moment of today’s passage, chapter 2. Hannah has handed over Samuel and then she praises Yahweh – breaking into a beautiful song (a song that becomes the basis for Psalm 113, a praise song used frequently by the people of Israel). Hannah praises Yahweh because “the LORD is a God who knows and by him deeds are weighed” (v. 3). In other words, the creator of the universe wasn’t looking at outward or cultural symbols of status.
Peninnah, in her arrogance and self-importance, didn’t see the quality of Hannah’s faith or her integrity. Peninnah only saw that Hannah didn’t measure up to their culture’s understanding of status and self-worth. Yet the LORD saw Hannah’s heart and her faith, saw her misery, and acted to bring about change.
Yahweh Turns the Order Upside-Down
Interestingly, Hannah’s song of praise becomes more than about her – the LORD’s one act is seen as a symbol for how Yahweh works. God is revealed as the one who redeems, re-orders the world, and turns the world upside-down. Yahweh lifts up the despised and the lowly. Hannah declares, “There is no one like God. He breaks the bows of the mighty, but the weak He gives strength. The once-well fed end up working for their dinner, while the hungry are filled to the brim. The infertile woman has seven kids, while the woman with many loses hers. The needy and the poor are lifted out of the dirt and given places of honor.”
As the Message translation puts it, “God brings poverty and God brings wealth; he lowers, he also lifts up. He puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, restoring dignity and respect to their lives—a place in the sun!”
Hannah’s song takes her circumstance – God giving hope to the derided and outcast – and connects it to the nature of who Yahweh had revealed Himself to be. This is a story of the strange, eternal God, the ‘I am who I am,’ who has acted mightily in the past and made a tiny group of former slaves into a people with their own land.
The story of Hannah is one of many stories in Scripture where Yahweh chooses the poor and despised, where He turns the world’s ideas of status and glory on upside down, and exalts the outcast. Little did Peninnah know when she mocked Hannah that her rival would have such great faith, that Yahweh would see Hannah’s suffering, and that Hannah’s faith would lead to a child who becomes a famous leader in Israel. As a boy, Samuel serves at the Israelites’ house of worship and hears the voice of God. He eventually becomes a leader of the Israelites and is even used by the LORD to anoint David as King over the people. Hannah, once despised, is lifted up as a woman of faith and sacrifice because of the divine acts of Yahweh.
The Love of the Church can Transform Lives
When I was growing up, my mom was a single parent and we didn’t have a lot of money. I wore hand-me-down clothes and lived in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere northern Canada. While I excelled academically in school, I struggled with insecurity. In 8th grade, I moved across the country with my mom and started a new school. I remember my best friend at the time occasionally making strange comments, things like “kids of single parents aren’t likely to do well in school or go to university.” (Wait, what did you say?)
As we approached the transition to high school, my friend applied to a special enrichment program that was somewhat selective. She and her parents discouraged me from applying but my 8th grade teacher told me that he thought I should. I did and I was accepted. At 8th grade graduation, I received the math and the English awards. I realized that my friend wasn’t very happy. Like Peninnah, she was looking at parts of me, my social status, and making judgments about my worth and competency – and like Peninnah, she was wrong.
I continued to do well in school but still struggled with insecurity and self-confidence. I started going to a youth group at my church and learned about an opportunity to serve on an international mission trip. I applied and went to Kenya for two months with a team of 23 teens from across Canada and the U.S. The trip was incredibly formative in many ways. In Kenya, I experienced a different culture and I was exposed to the dramatic differences in standards of living around the world. I saw people whose basic needs were not met and that reshaped how I understood the world.
Beyond that, my trip to Kenya was the first time I felt truly loved and accepted by people other than my family: people didn’t care if I wasn’t thin, what clothes I wore, if I was athletic or tripped over rocks a lot while constructing the house we were building (I did). My sisters and brothers in Christ considered me worthy of love, compassion, and kindness – and that changed my life. I realized that I was a beloved child of God and saw how that was the reason why my team loved me. This love freed me to be kinder to others. It helped me understand my self-worth didn’t come from my clothes or my family background or how cool I was considered. Sisters and brothers, the love of the church can transform lives.
Love as the Opposite of Arrogance
Followers of Jesus are called to flee from arrogance, self-importance, and judgment – and are called to turn towards love. Love is the opposite of arrogance: love associates with the lowly and doesn’t claim to be worth more than others. Love sees all people as created in the image of God – equally so – whether rich or poor, black, white, or brown, young or old, homeless or housed, male or female, small or large, gay or straight. Beyond these big social markers of prejudice, love also looks past whether someone is awkward, considered uncool, whether someone is a bit strange, or struggles with depression or anxiety. Love associates with the lowly; love isn’t haughty or self-important or arrogant.
Hannah’s song and Romans 12 struck me this week because inward arrogance is something that I occasionally struggle with. Not that I actively think, “Hey, I’m better than someone,” – but I imply it sometimes. I imply that I’m better than someone when I don’t want to extend kindness to a person who doesn’t fit an image of who is “worthy” of my time and energy.
Scripture is full of places where God turns upside-down what it means to be “worthy” of love or kindness. Hannah gets her prayer answered. Mary, an unwed pregnant virgin, becomes blessed among women. Jesus intentionally reaches out to blind beggars, corrupt outcast tax collectors, and women seen as sexually deviant. The love that we are called to, friends, is a love that looks past what the world sees – to see people created in the image of God, worthy of love and kindness and hospitality and care.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. AMEN.