The Story of Eli: A Moral Tale on the Peril of Poor Parenting and Unfaithful Priestly Ministry

In the reading from today’s Mass we are introduced to Samuel for the first time. We also see are rather stunning portrait of poor parenting and poor priestly leadership in the person of of High Priest of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, Eli. Consider this line from the Scripture today:

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am.  You called me.”“I did not call you,” Eli said.  “Go back to sleep.” …..At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. (1 Sam 3:3-5).

Now let me ask you, how could it be that Samuel, a young boy living in the temple of the Lord and under the foster parentage of the High Priest was “not familiar” with the Lord? Some may argue he is but a young boy. Still, he is old enough to speak with Eli, to hear and heed Eli’s instructions. Has Eli told him nothing of the Lord? It would seem so. Ah, but you say, the text has indicated that Samuel knew nothing because the Lord had not yet revealed anything to him. The text seems to root the cause of his unfamiliarity in the Lord rather than Eli. But Eli is still without excuse for it remains true that God reveals himself to us not usually as a voice in the night, or some unusual theophany. Rather, God reveals himself to us through parents, priests, religious and other elders. For a young and already talking Samuel to be unfamiliar with the Lord while living under the care of the High Priest supposedly ministering in the very House of The Lord is unconscionable. It is a dereliction of duty. Eli has failed thus far as a parent and a priest. Children should be taught of God from their first interactive moments. Among the first things they learn should be Bible stories and prayers. They should be made aware of and become familiar with the “still small voice”  of God as he whispers his presence to them.

I have only a few memories of being a very young child of about 5 years of age. But one of the memories I most cherish is how plainly I heard the voice of God and felt his presence. There was a very beautiful statue of the  Sacred Heart near my dresser and God surely spoke to me from there and I was familiar with his calming and loving presence. But I could understand what I was experiencing because my parents had made me familiar with the Lord. I knew who it was that was speaking to me in those quiet and calm whispers. It was the Lord. Sadly, as I grew older and the flesh became more alive I lost my ability to hear the “still, small voice” of the Lord. I have sought it ever since my conversion back to the Lord and am only in recent years beginning to experience it again in moments of contemplative prayer.

I knew who spoke to me and had been made familiar with him, but Samuel did not and this is a very serious dereliction of duty on the part of Eli. When asked he finally did tell Samuel of the Lord but Samuel should not have had to ask.

Perhaps you think I am being too hard on Eli or reading into the text a bit. Maybe Eli was a busy man being High Priest and all. Or perhaps I am just plain wrong and Eli was actually a good father figure for Samuel. But I do not think I am wrong nor am I being too harsh for poor parenting and poor priestly leadership are a pattern for Eli. Consider another story about the two priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas:

Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Now it was the practice of the priests with the people that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would plunge it into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot, and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the servant of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”  If the man said to him, “Let the fat be burned up first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would then answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt……Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death…..Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the LORD says:  Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: …those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line …” ‘And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day. I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his house, and he will minister before my anointed one always.  (1 Sam 2:selected verses)

The basic facts are these:

  1. The priestly sons of Eli, Hophniand Phinehas, are wicked men. They violate the sacred liturgy and and take more than their portion, a portion that belongs to God. They scandalize the faithful, act unjustly toward them and have illicit sexual relations with the young women assigned to care for the Shrine at Shiloh.
  2. But Eli does nothing. When it is called to his attention he gives a verbal rebuke. But he must do more than this. They have acted so scandalously that they must be removed. They are a threat to others by their exploitative and opportunistic behavior. They should have been removed. It is a true fact that we struggled with this very same thing in the clergy sexual abuse scandal of recent years.
  3. God rebukes Eli for his weak rebuke and tells him that his weak response indicates that Eli favors his sons more than God and also scorns the sacred liturgy.
  4. God cannot allow Eli and his sons to minister at Shiloh any longer. He will bring Eli’s family down and replace him with a priest who is faithful and will do what is in God’s heart and mind. In a word, Eli has been replaced. Samuel will soon enough take up the holy priesthood. Hophni and Phinehas will die soon for their sins, and Eli’s line is at an end.

How has all this happened? Poor parenting and an unfaithful priestly ministry. In failing to raise his children in the fear of the Lord and in failing to punish wrongdoing Eli has brought grave harm upon himself, his family and his sons. In addition, when Samuel was placed in his care he continued with his pattern of failing to preach the Lord and make Samuel familair with him.

This is a moral tale for our times as well. How many young people today have not been raised in the reverential fear of the Lord, have not been raised to be familiar with the Lord, have not been properly disciplined by parents  and trained in righteousness? How many of them have not been instructed in God’s ways and have been allowed to fall deep into sinful habits and patterns.

In the Church  too some have not at times been willing to discipline where necessary.  Sin is often not rebuked from our pulpits, children are poorly instructed in the faith. We celebratete compassion but sometimes to a fault where sin is tolerated and grows very serious in people’s lives. Silence by many clergy and Church leaders in the face of serious sin can and  is taken to be tacit approval of sin and has led to a widespread moral malaise. Disobedience in the clergy has sometimes been tolerated. Liturgical norms and the sacred liturgy have often been abused. And yes, as we sadly know there has been abusive and illicit sexual activity too.

Thank God there are signs of revival and renewal in many of these areas in the Church and in some of our families. But the story of Eli is an important moral tale for our times that God wants us to take serious our obligation to raise our children to know the Lord and walk in his ways. Through proper discipline and instruction we are summoned to have our children be familiar with the Lord at the very dawning of consciousness and reason. To fail in this regard is something God takes very seriously. Thank God for good parents, clergy and religious who have done their very best in this regard. Hopefully the story of Eli for most of us is simply an encouragement to do what we are already doing. But for those who fail to take seriously their obligations in this regard it should be seen for what it also is: a warning.

Since this was a rather heavy post, perhaps you’ll allow me to post a humorous video. As I have pointed out, Parents and priests should teach Children to pray. But this video by Tim Hawkins tells us what to avoid when teaching children to pray. In a phrase: “Don’t be spooky!”

23 Replies to “The Story of Eli: A Moral Tale on the Peril of Poor Parenting and Unfaithful Priestly Ministry”

  1. This reflection strikes to the heart of so many family issues of our times, especially for single moms and blended families as a result of divorce. Many “mixed” marriages (i.e. catholics who marry protestants), have different views on how to raise their children. Even those parents of the same faith. Our children are getting a lot of mixed messages from the world, from the parents and yes, even from the church. Tell me Msgr Pope, what are we to do in order to ensure a healthy balance for our kids?

    1. Well in the end, God’s plan for marriage and family have to be reinstituted. One other major cultural Change is that we are going to have to get over our authority issues.In this case I refer to the aversion that so many IN authority (i.e. parents and priests) have of using their authority.

  2. Raising children today is challenging in different ways than generations ago. For instance, science will challenge this generation’s morality in ways some parents don’t even understand. Technology has made the world much smaller and access to information instantaneous. Parents need to know how to protect as well as utilize this technology, but, speaking for myself, I feel behind the times. Rooting our children in values seems more daunting than it was before, though definitely necessary. My eldest is 23, and it seemed easier than it is with my preteens. It seemed like I could be more proactive in raising my eldest, while, with my youngest, it seems like I’m always reacting to something- an inappropriate image they see, or “adult” info a peer gets from the internet and shares, etc. In short, I think it takes more vigilance “these days” to raise moral kids, but the culture seems to be slipping more and more into some kind of “self discovery” mode with our kids.

    Also, I think Catholic schools play a key role in raising our kids. Sometime it seems like Catholic education, at worst departs with and, at best ignores faith-based teachings in favor of the secular. A subtle message in that might be that one outgrows faith.

    1. You’re right we have to double-down our efforts. it is especially important to limit access to cable, the internet and the like. Also to monitor the ise of same. It is also true that Catholic schools have to work hard ot preserve Catholic Identity. Many if not most of our universities are lost. We need to keep our High schools and elementary schools fromt he same fate.

    2. My kids went to Catholic School. I had the same experience. I found that part of the problem was that some of the teachers were not Catholic, Protestant, or even claimed to be Christians. They came across to me as spies for the government like Hitler’s SS.

      One year I went to the pre-kindergarten meeting for parents and had to watch two videos from some Education Association that mandated participation in controversial subjects. I got to know the teachers and tried to keep up with when certain things, like sex ed, were supposed to be presented. We, myself and other parents, somehow kept getting the entire class of children sick on those days, and managed to help babysit the sick children for parents who had a job. Some of the teachers managed to just not present the material.

      We built a network of parents and teachers to try to keep up. Some times the bad was turned into good because we knew what concept was going to be discussed, and instead of preventing my kids exposure, I was able to read them the scripture and ask them what they thought it meant. Asking them seemed to make them think about it more and helped them fight the culture of “that’s you dad’s interpretation”. It helped them realize God is very capable of making his own point if they will just take the time to read it. And it helped them realize God has a point of view on just about everything, so since your going to get your brain washed by someone (the school, government, teachers, parents, etc.) you might as well get it “washed by the Word”.

      Anyway, my kids are now 21, 20, and 18. They came out great. I think the Catholic education was a major cultural improvement over public school because there was some filtering, they taught respect, and they participated in prayer. For those of you who are over 50, the public school doesn’t have prayer anymore, and when I went to it, they basically teach what your parents limitations are legally which kind of promotes disrespect for parents (in my opinion). I recommend Catholic schools and parental participation.

  3. Our children and grandchildren grow up in an environment polluted by hedonistic values. Limiting hours of television and controlling movies can help; but with best (we think) efforts, one of our five kids and at least two of 12 grandkids no longer practice the faith. We take inspiration from St. Monica and pray much.
    Visualize the Lord as a fisherman. He has a line on each of our descendants. We pray that he reel them in, even if there are sunken logs and rocks in between Him and the fish.

  4. Father, Could it be that Samuel was the first prophet of Israel and therefore he was not expecting the Lord to call him that clearly at that young age at night? Previous religious leaders received their call differently. Samuel might be the first one to be raised to be a prophet. It seems to me as if God was preparing a new era or level of revelation for the people of Israel.

    Eli no doubt will be blamed for the lack of honesty in his children. In today’s first reading the Ark of the Covenant is captured and Eli’s sons die. It is not enough for the Army to march with the Ark to win God’s favor. God is seeking more from his chosen people. Let’s wait until David the shepherd comes to the picture! Parents could teach their children to be authentic even if they at first are just sent to take care of the sheep.

    1. Well, what I am getting at is that not Eli’s confusion that night but Samuel’s. And specifically why does the text say that he is “unfamiliar with the Lord?”

      1. Do you think God might just be trying to point out that this was the beginning of Samuel’s ministry and he just hadn’t been called before? Maybe God used a voice similar to Levi’s voice.

  5. I am reminded of Eli-like Bishops who have no one to rebuke them and of Eli-like Bishops who fail to rebuke Priests over whom they have charge. Especially for injustices in the Liturgy at Holy Mass and for dissenting from the Supreme Magisterium. I mourn intensely at every Sunday mass.

    1. Well that is surely part of the lesson from this story. It is necessary to pray for Bishops, Pastors and parents who require great courage and stamina to do what they must do in this matter.

  6. Love the topic. In my opinion, it’s about what we should be doing. As you expressed in point #2, Eli essentially did nothing by merely giving them a verbal rebuke. The poor guy is very old. He can’t exactly spank his kids. He did rebuke them, and God is saying that’s not enough!!! So God kills the kids and later, Eli.

    If you were the High Priest and parent, what would you do? Having 20/20 hind sight, we can see that a good scolding was not enough. These “kids” were full grown adults. What specifically should he have done? What scripture did God provide for Eli, thee High Priest of the time (in the Aaronic Priesthood), that would guide him to properly respond to the situation?

    I don’t think Eli was allowed to kill them because that would violate the Ten Commandments. I’m not sure if he was allowed to kick them out of the Priesthood because they were born into their position as descendants of Levi. Should he have had him arrested, beaten, or publicly humiliated?

    Similarly, what are we supposed to be doing? I don’t want to be in Hell some day because I didn’t bother to find out. I want to be in line with dad (the Father), my big brother who he dearly loves (Jesus), and his best friend (Holy Spirit), no disrespectful intentions whatsoever implied.

    When I raised my kids, I got scared over the responsibility. This was one of the scriptures that reinforced my concern. I knew I had to do something more than talk to them, so I read the scripture to them. It basically came out like this: ‘God wants you to learn to be good. He has rules. If you break them, he wants me to punish you enough to make you quit. I can do anything but kill you. I can even break every bone in your body but it should only be if I think it is absolutely necessary and I actually think it will make a difference in your behavior. I’m not allowed to torture you. I’m not allowed to punish you for just any reason so I have to explain why. If I don’t punish you, he promises he is going to punish me, because you will be punished later for what you did, and I will be punished for not helping you quit misbehaving. So here is how I decided I’m going to raise you: I’m going to tell you the rules as we go and let you know when you’ve done something wrong. If you apologize and quit doing it, that’s good enough for me. But if you keep doing it, the punishment is going to get harder and harder each time until you quit. Trust me, you are going to quit. You will just have to show me how hard I have to be before you quit.’ I think I ended up spanking my sons twice and having to slap my daughter’s hand once. I don’t think I ever had to punish them past four or five years old. I always reminded them of my philosophy on how the program works, and leaned on “Am I going to have to get my stick, or are you going to correct the problem?”, but I’m delighted to say “MY KIDS TURNED OUT GREAT!!!!!” Of course God gets the glory because I think I just did what he told me to do.

    But now what? I want to evangelize but don’t feel adequately prepared? Again, I’m concerned – I don’t want to be guilty of Eli’s sin since God did make a point about it. I can’t kill anyone since God said “vengeance is mine says the Lord” which I interpret as don’t take any extreme measures like killing people. But what can I do? Join a march in front of an abortion clinic, or city hall? Write a letter to a representative government official against divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, or other spiritual concerns? I don’t feel we are very well organized to fight the good fight of faith. I live in Grand Rapids Michigan and we (the Roman Catholic Church) don’t have our own shelter for the homeless. I feel defenseless in trying to support Annulment. I want to know where to get the basis for our stance on our positions other than Jesus gave the keys to Peter. Eli was perceived as having the keys when he erred so I don’t think the argument will be effective. I want to know the details of where and how we came to our conclusions (big and little traditions). Anyway, what are we supposed to be doing, and where do we get the detailed information? And just what was Eli supposed to do?

    1. Hey Heny, God love you but I feel like you open the firehydrant sometimes. You mention about 15 issues here.I might encourage you to search the blog however using the saerch tab above. I have written on a number of these topics before.

      1. Henry,
        To answer your question:
        “I want to know the details of where and how we came to our conclusions (big and little traditions). Anyway, what are we supposed to be doing, and where do we get the detailed information?”

        There is no silver bullet answer for this question, I have found the only way to answer this is to start on a journey of reading. There is 2000 years worth of Catholic literature, I would’nt let that bother me. I would start with a small set of books by Patrick Madrid – Why is that in tradition, Where is that in the Bible, & Answer me this. Then check out books by Scott Hahn and other authors from Ignatius Press, that would be a start.

  7. i’ve been a parent for but a few years. i’ve learnt that children love to test whatever boundaries we set for them. It becomes my duty to remind the that those boundaries are fixed and may not be crossed. the more a boundary is defined the child pushes against it seeking its extension. sometimes adult persons who live with me extend the line. sometimes they give the child reasons not to stay off the line. the result is what are called brats. i’ve learnt that children always follow my example. tv or video or films are not as effective in influencing their actions as my personal example.

  8. my four year old one morning recently:
    “God!” His sister responds from the other room, “Yeah?” He responds, “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to God. God!”…pause…”What time is Mommy going to get me up?”…pause…”Oh.”…pause…”What is she going to make me for breakfast?”…pause…”Oh.”

  9. When I was a young parent many years ago, I was very apprehensive about “the culture.” However, we had a young Korean couple living across the hall from us. Whenever their door was open, strong cooking smells came wafting out, together with a lot of incomprehensible Korean chatter. It struck me that their kids might as well be growing up in Seoul. And then it hit me, that even in the midst of Babylon, within my own home I could create whatever culture I wished. We did that.

    For example, whenever the kids wanted to go out to play, they would run up to us and say, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray with me? I want to go out out to play!!!” And we would put an arm around them, and take advantage of the moment to pray for their safety now and always, that God would keep them close to him and pour out His blessings upon them, etc. It took only thirty or forty seconds, but it happened several times a day. We freighted them down with blessings for the rest of their lives.

    We threw out the TV. Why should I try to compete with secularized producers and advertisers? Effectively I annhilated them. This also prevented me from becoming a crab: “Don’t watch this, don’t watch that, etc.” One draconian decision and the problem was solved

    In the evenings we spent about 90 minutes reading good secular literature such as the Chronicles of Narnia, book length lives of the Saints and the Baltimore Catechism.

    My children are now 32 and 30 yrs old, and both are fervent Catholics. In fact, my daughter is a Carmelite nun. To God, God alone, be the glory!!!

    If only I could put this program- Family Evenings Together- in a battle and sell it to the Bishops of the United States, for I know to the core of my being that there is NO vocation problem, there is only a parenting problem.

    Or as an article in Avvenire framed it several years ago: The Culture of Vocation vs the Culture of Distraction. If we annihilate the Culture of Distraction in every Catholic home, the Culture of Vocation will flourish. It is not in the least problematical.

  10. ‘Sin’ I think you should read Alfred Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic. ‘Sin’ is really just a human creation as is theistic religion (pre enlightenment) to keep people living in fear…it seems to be working in the R.C.C. Moreover, from article above the author of this post seems to totally misunderstand the terms ‘Mythos’ and ‘Logos’
    Morse . U.K

  11. “To be familiar” with God doesn’t mean to know of God’s existence, but to know God personally. So, in defense of Eli, it was not that he didn’t teach Samuel about God, just that the LORD had not revealed himself to Samuel yet.

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