It is helpful to know some of the background to today’s first reading. Eli had two sons but neither were fit by their actions which were sinful to receive the blessing of God. When Eli finally realized that God was calling Samuel this would have been in his awareness and he would have realized that God’s call to the youth Samuel was also a judgment on his two sons. They would not receive the blessing; rather Samuel would. Eli could have tried to thwart what was going on in favor of his two sons but he did not. When he realized what was occurring he instructed the youth (who was not his son) to respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Eli was faithful to God and that very faithfulness aided the young Samuel in answering God’s call for him in his life. Eli is a witness to faithfulness, to looking beyond self-interest and to doing what is right for the next generation.
Here is a question and a challenge that I want to put before all parents, grandparents and adults in our community. Have you ever encouraged your child, your grandchild or a young person you know to just consider a possible calling to the priesthood or religious life? If you have then you stand with Eli and his witness. If you have not then frankly you have no right to ever complain if you ever believe that a priest or religious is too busy to meet your needs at a certain time.
Yes, vocations to priesthood or religious life are a mystery of God’s grace but vocations also do not emerge from a vacuum. I think we would all view it as foolish if a farmer were to think that a crop would just automatically spring up from an unworked plot of land. Yes, for a good crop there must be the grace of good sun, good rain and good temperatures (all of which is beyond the farmer’s control) but there must also be the work of tilling the ground, planting the seeds, and plucking the weeds. Often, we expect an abundance of vocations from unworked land! It doesn’t work that way. And it is not just the job of the priest or religious. That is another myth. It is all of our job. It is the Church’s job to stand with Eli and to be a witness as he was a witness – a witness to faithfulness, a witness to looking beyond self-interest and a witness to doing what is right for the next generation.
In John’s gospel the first words spoken by our Lord is the question we hear him ask the two disciples of John who are following him. “What are you looking for?” This question is put before each one of us. It is put before each follower of Christ and it is put before each generation of the Church. It is asked by our Lord to the young generation and only in answering this question will joy be found. To downplay the question, to try to ignore the encounter, to try to qualify and set limits for our youth is to do a disservice. The question must be asked! Every follower of Christ must answer! Every generation must answer! It is the job of the Church to stand in witness with Eli – to help and encourage the young Samuels.