by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When Jesus turned and saw them (John’s two disciples) following, he said to them: “What are you looking for?” John 1, 35-42

One of the fascinating aspects of the four Gospels is that many questions are attributed to Jesus, while he himself rarely gives direct answers to questions put to him. Moreover, the answers he does give are often cryptic or puzzling to his audience. In presenting the questions that Jesus asks, the Gospel writers expect us, too, to answer them. After all, that’s what is required of us if we dare to participate in the gospel-readings we hear whenever they are read to us and whenever we spend quiet time reading the Gospels for ourselves. Just for a moment, let’s recall some of the questions attributed to Jesus: “Where is your courage? What little faith you have!” (to the apostles in the boat during the storm, Matthew 8, 26); “Who do you say I am?” (to the apostles in Matthew 16, 15); “What do you want me to do for you?” (to a blind man in Mark 10, 51); “Why were you searching for me?” (to Mary & Joseph in Luke 2, 49); “Do you love me?” (to Peter in John 21, 17).

The very first words attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel are the question we hear in today’s gospel-reading: “What are you looking for?” (to two of the disciples of John the Baptist, John 1, 38) Their response “Where are you staying?” carries the unspoken request “We want to come to talk with you.” Moreover, the reply that Jesus gives them demonstrates clearly that he is attuned to their query: “Come along and see for yourselves.”

While we are not given the substance of the conversation that took place between Jesus and his guests, we soon learn that, by the next day, Jesus had attracted four new disciples in Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel.

Yet, while this gospel-reading describes an event in the lives of Jesus and four curious men who came to him wondering who he was and what was driving him to do what he was doing, the question Jesus put to them also hangs in the air for us today. Jesus is saying to each of us: “Friend, what are you looking for?” And while we might be struggling for words of reply, the decisions and choices we make in the course of every day spell out our response in action. We know in our hearts when those choices and decisions are honest and healthy and when they lack the stamp of integrity and are unworthy of us as would-be followers of Jesus. Being a participant in today’s gospel reading means giving time to pondering and answering the question Jesus puts to each of us: “Friend, what are you looking for?” The very fact that Jesus puts that question to us is an invitation to engage with him. Engaging with him may well take us in directions of which we have not yet dreamed.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Samuel complements the gospel-reading in that it illustrates the unexpected twists and turns that can come in one’s life when God’s invitations are heard and responded to. Once again, context is very helpful in coming to understand the roles of Samuel and Eli in the story we hear. Eli’s mother Hannah was Elkanah’s second wife. His first wife Peninnah had borne him many sons and daughters, and had fallen into the practice of taunting Hannah because she was barren. One day Eli, a priest in the temple, noticed Hannah praying and weeping, and because he saw her lips moving and heard nothing, he concluded she was drunk. She was, in fact, praying that she would have a son, and that, if God heard her prayer, she would give the child up to service in the temple. When Eli challenged her about being drunk, she explained to him the reason for her sadness and bitterness. In response Eli said to Hannah: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked.” In due course, Hannah gave birth to Eli, and true to her promise, Hannah, accompanied by Elkanah, handed their child over to Eli. When Samuel was old enough, he became Eli’s assistant. Ironically, Eli’s own grown-up sons were renegades, described as “a bad lot, who didn’t know God, and who could not have cared less about the customs of priests among the people”. Worse still, Eli had not called them into line. As for Hannah and Elkanah, they went on to have three more sons and two daughters.

Today’s first reading picks up the story of Samuel’s vocation in the temple, and how God intervened in his life, waking him three times from his sleep one night. Thinking it was Eli who was calling him, Samuel went each time to Eli to see what he wanted. At the boy’s third visit, it dawned on Eli that it was God who was calling him. Telling Samuel to go back to bed, Eli added: “If the voice calls again, say: ‘Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.’” Therein lies the crunch for us. Does God intervene in our lives? Does God invite us to get involved in anything? And if so, how and when do we hear God’s voice?

In fairly recent years, the long-standing Benedictine practice of lectio divina has made a reappearance in some parts of our Church. Groups of Catholics and other Christians have begun to gather to read and reflect on passages from the Bible. The selected passage is read three times, with an extended period for silent reflection after each reading. Group members then share with one another the insights that have come to them.

The busyness of modern life sometimes results in a loss of our ability to listen effectively to one another. There may well be a need for us to relearn how to listen – to the people close to us, to those we meet at work, while shopping and everywhere else, and, indeed, to God. When we come to believe that God does actually speak to us through the people we encounter and through our thoughts and feelings, and through the events of our lives, then we start on the way to renewing ourselves and taking seriously our vocation as followers of Jesus. Then, we will find the courage to pray as Eli advised Samuel to pray: “Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen, and ready to respond.”

There is a telling sentence early in today’s first reading: “This was at a time when the revelation of God was rarely heard or seen” (Samuel 3, 1). In other words, Eli was not expecting any life-changing message from God to Samuel. Much more so the young Samuel. Yet, what Samuel heard was a message of judgement on Eli and his family. It must have been a hard message for a young lad like Samuel to hear and even harder for him to share it with the man who was his boss. Ultimately, it turned out to be a good message because it was about the renewal of Israel.

The message from all this for us is that we not only have to learn to listen but to believe also that God can and does speak to us, and that what we hear will not necessarily be a comfortable message. God will not tell us to love everybody, to forgive everyone, but to open our heart to this particular person, to forgive the angry man who lives next door. If we dare to pray: “Speak, God, for your servant is ready to listen”, we can’t be sure where God will lead us.