Who are your sons?

Monday, June 17, 2013 — Week of Proper 6, Year One

Psalms 80 (morning) // 77, 79 (evening)

1 Samuel 1:1-20

Acts 1:1-14

Luke 20:9-19

What things in your life bring you security and respect? In two of our readings today, people seek relief from anxiety, and respect for their authority, by having a son. And yet the story of Hannah and the parable of the vineyard-owner also reveal truer sources of security and respect: trust in God and vulnerability to others.

Hannah lives with all the anxiety that comes with being a childless woman in a patriarchal society. Peninnah, the woman who shares her husband, has children, and she provokes Hannah “severely” and irritates her. We can only imagine the cold and cutting remarks, the teasing that borders on cruelty, year after year. Peninnah’s meanness is probably self-protective, since she has her own share of sadness and insecurity: her husband, Elkanah, loves Hannah more.

But one especially loving husband isn’t enough to mitigate the structural stresses induced by living in a patriarchal and polygamous culture. Hannah needs a son. She carries her anxiety to the Lord, praying and weeping, pouring out her soul, and making such a peculiar spectacle of her prayer style that the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk. She tells him, “I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Will a son relieve this pressure?

While Hannah understands her own anxiety, the vineyard-owner in today’s gospel seems oblivious to the insecurity confronting him. His renegade tenants refuse to deliver to his slaves a share in the vineyard’s profits: they beat one slave, both beat and insult another, and wound still a third.

The vineyard-owner completely miscalculates the situation. Instead of catching on to the tenants’ pattern of escalating violence, he thinks he can turn the situation around with a grand gesture. He thinks, “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” How wrong he is: The tenants recognize the beloved son as the vineyard-owner’s heir, and they kill him.

In both of these stories, a son appears to offer Hannah some relief from her great anxiety, and to bring respect to the vineyard-owner for his authority. Indeed, Hannah does receive peace and security, and the vineyard-owner receives respect in the long run. Yet the sources of security and respect have everything to do with offering our selves to God, and with God’s self-giving relationship to us, and not with any substitutes.

Hannah’s ultimate source of security comes through having a fully reassuring and trusting relationship with the Lord. She speaks to the Lord freely and intensely, “out of my great anxiety and vexation.” By praying through her anxiety, Hannah is able to eat again, to wear a new facial expression, and to get up early the next morning. And when she does receive her son, she recognizes him as a gift and offers him to God’s service.

For the vineyard-owner, the respect that he eventually gains through his beloved son comes from the risk that he took with his own heart. The tenants may have initially rejected his son, but Jesus explains that, in the long run, the rejected one becomes integral to the new community of God’s people. As God becomes vulnerable to us in the incarnate Christ, we can adore and worship God for the risk that he took in offering his beloved son, his very self.

In light of Hannah’s prayerful trust and of God’s self-giving risk, we can re-evaluate those “sons” that seem to give us security and bring us respect. Whether they are credentials, networks, personality traits, or possessions, they are no substitute for the true and divine sources of what we need and desire most deeply. By praying through our anxiety with trust in God, and by patterning our own vulnerability on God’s self-offering through Christ, we can more fully receive the beloved son whom God has sent.

Inspired as a child by Maria Von Trapp, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus, Lora Walsh strives for wisdom, justice, and a simpler way.  She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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