One of the sad aspects (and great mover of the events) of the Book of Samuel is the pernicious problem of the corruption of Israelite religion.
Wicked priests abuse the trust of faithful Israelites and the influence of these wicked priests corrupts the Israelite religion. This has a catastrophic effect on the Israelites as corruption of cult inevitably leads to a corruption of culture.
Two priests are singled out in a particular way as representing corruption- the sons of Eli, Hophmi and Phinehas. Eli, though not corrupt in the same manner as his sons, exhibits his own particular kind of corruption by what seems to be a refusal to correct his sons, or protect the people from them. Evil grows not simply because wicked people do bad things, but because good people allow wicked people to do bad things. By ignoring evil we makes ourselves complicit in evil.
This all comes to its fulfillment in the events described in today’s excerpt from the Book of Samuel. The wicked priests Hophni and Phinehas remove the great Ark of God from the sanctuary at Shiloh, believing that God’s hand will be forced to protect the Ark and therefore assure the armies of the Israelites as they do battle.
But God is not manipulated and whatever protection Hophni and Phinehas had presumed is not given, and the Israelites are utterly defeated.
The lesson here is a subtle one and can be taken to mean that our religion cannot be used as a kind of amulet, a talisman, or a means of forcing God’s hand. Instead, our religion is a way of life through which seek to observe God’s commandments, and in doing so, live in such a way that our lives bring honor to God. Our religion is not meant as something we use as a false front, a mask of virtue, when in reality what lurks behind the mask are lives filled with vice. The lesson of Hophni and Phinehas is shows us the outcome of using religion as a strategy of deception, rather than as a means of coming to terms with the truth.
Corruption in the priesthood or corruption of religion can be the cause of a culture’s corruption. As I noted, corruption of cult leads inevitably to a corruption of culture. But it can also be symptomatic of a broader and more systemic moral corruption. Priests do not fall from the heavens, but are drawn from the people, and sometimes water drawn from its source is corrupted by its source and cannot sustain life.
Christ provides certain anti-bodies against the disease of priestly corruption by re-founding the priesthood and giving it as its source and identity his own person and mission. This means that our culture, or our politics, or our ideologies are not the source for what the Church’s priesthood will be about, but instead it is Christ himself. The people will always have a reference point to discern a good priest from a bad priest, and that will be how a priest seeks to conform himself to Christ. But if the Church is to have priests that are conformed to Christ, then the people must conform themselves to Christ as well, or corruption will most assuredly take hold.
If priests are to be holy, then the people whom they minister too must help them, and if the people are to be holy, then the priests must help them. If this reciprocity breaks down, the result is the terrible situation described in the Book of Samuel- or worse.
In today’s Gospel the Lord Jesus delivers a man from a terrible affliction- leprosy a disease that was particularly feared by the Israelites, not just because it was presupposed to be highly contagious, but because it was understood as a sign that a person has been abandoned by God.
Lepers were very sick people who were often treated with fear and contempt and forced to the margins of society. They were the poorest of the poor.
Christ delivered people from this affliction and not only that permitted himself to touch and be touched by lepers, a gesture that indicated that these poor people were not abandoned by God or beyond his power to save. As Christ did, so we must do.
But also, we must consider that Christ sends the lepers to the priests, a gesture that indicates, contrary to some, that it was not intention of the Lord Jesus to destroy the forms of Israelite religious life, such as the priesthood, the temple, and such, but to give all this new meaning and purpose and effect their transformation.
Christ did not come with a mission to destroy, but to transform. Yes, he delivers us from forms of religion that have been corrupted, but he comes to restore religion to its true purpose and intention.
This restored priesthood is gestured towards or indicated in his healing of the leper- it is a priesthood that has as its purpose to forgive and receive those, who like the leper, had thought themselves abandoned by God or beyond his power to save, but had found in Jesus Christ a Savior and a Friend.