You have to wonder what would have happened if Eli the priest hadn’t delivered.
He had plenty of reasons to pay no attention to the woman praying at the edge of the temple. It appeared that the woman had been imbibing a little too much wine. That’s what old Eli assumed because the woman was moving her lips but he couldn’t hear any sounds, any voice, any words.
So when he approached Hannah, it was to chastise her, to shame her into changing her ways. “How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you.” (1 Samuel 1:14)
But Hannah quickly explained that she had come to the temple out of her “great anxiety and vexation” for not being able to have a child by her husband, Elkanah, unlike Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, with whom he had many children.
Hannah repeated to Eli the prayer that had been in her heart and on her lips but couldn’t be voiced: “O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy maidservant, and remember me, and not forget thy maidservant, but wilt give thy maidservant a child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
The old priest took her at her word and told Hannah: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him.”
Eli delivered. So did the God who heard the prayers of Hannah and Eli. And so, in time, did Hannah.
As the biblical text reports: “And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her; and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.'”
That son, it turns out, became the one who anointed David the king of Israel.
So you really do have to wonder what would have happened if Eli the priest hadn’t delivered.
The House of Representatives delivered over the weekend. It passed, by the narrowest of margins, a health-care insurance program that would eventually cover about 96 percent of Americans, irrespective of their employment status or earning conditions. It would disallow the denial of coverage based on pre-existing health conditions, provide a public health insurance option to reduce costs through competition and make coverage available to those who would be otherwise excluded.
It wasn’t as much as many of us wanted, especially compared with the health coverage provided by other nations, yet it was an important and large step.
But you have to wonder what would have happened if the House hadn’t delivered.
Would we have decades more of the most prosperous (even in recessionary times) and most medically talented nation in the history of the world delivering health care in such a way that at least 45 million people would be without health insurance and more than 60 million underinsured?
Or might the U.S. Congress have had to fall back to the alternative Republican health-care insurance plan? That plan certainly would be less costly ($61 billion over a decade, compared to more than a trillion dollars for the one that passed this weekend), but would increase coverage by only a couple of million over those 10 years.
Actually, when all the calculations are made, the Republican bill would leave us, as a country, essentially where we are today – with projections that 52 million people who would not be covered by the single payer Medicare system still remaining uncovered – around 17 percent of that non-Medicare population.
And the Republican plan allows insurance companies to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, allows no tax credits or subsidies for purchase of insurance, and allows the insurance companies to drop their patrons because of the patrons’ illnesses.
That’s a lot like Eli the priest choosing to walk away from the vexed and anxious Hannah.
Members of the Senate will, of course, have their chance to take or forsake a moral stand and to answer or ignore the call of history in the coming weeks. So we will again face the question of whether enough of them will decide to deliver.
But it doesn’t end there.
In the Protestant Christian traditions there is a central teaching that the priesthood isn’t and can’t be confined to some special class or rank or order of the faith. Instead there is the understanding that every believer is a priest, a mediator between God and humanity as a follower of Jesus the Christ. It’s the idea that everyone serves as an Eli to the Hannahs of this world.
If we find ourselves in this Protestant Christian body of believers, we’ve got priestly work to do in the coming weeks. That priestly work certainly includes lifting up our prayers to a loving and merciful God for all the anxious and vexed Hannahs who don’t have health insurance in our country or don’t have enough of it.
But our prayers will be even more effective if we are mediators – priests – between those Hannahs and the senators who will be deciding the place of morality in their political vocations and how they will be recorded in the call of history.
It isn’t just a question of whether the Senate, like the House of Representatives, will deliver. It’s the question also that is being put to us who, by our faith, claim to stand with Eli, as well as our High Priest.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.