It was almost 900 years ago that a pope lived by the name of Innocent. Like many popes before him, he used his office to lead Christians into holy war against non-Christian groups. I am sure you have heard the slogan, “If you can’t beat them join them.” The Christians of this era lived by a different slogan, “If they won’t join you, beat them.” Crusades of this type raged throughout Europe and extended to the Holy Land. Thousands were killed in the name of Christianity.
The kind of horrible influence these crusades had on society and on the name of Christianity is evident in the most curious and the most tragic of the crusades. It happened during Pope Innocent III’s reign. It was called the Children’s Crusade. In the spring of 1212, children, ages 12-18, gathered behind a boy from Cologne named Nicholas. Like the lost boys in Peter Pan, these children banded together without adult supervision. They had been influenced by generations of fighting ancestors. These children set out on a journey to the Holy Land with the idea that they could reclaim the church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus is believed to have been born, a place that had fallen into the hands of the Muslims. Unbelievably, they left without any intervention from the adult population. Only the King of France tried to stop their efforts. Tragedy followed. They never made it to their destination. It is reported that they were provided with transportation on merchant ships. Two of the ships sank. It is believed that the other children were carried off to slave markets in North Africa and Egypt. Others died of deprivation or violence. Some were fortunate enough to make it back home.1
This true story is a terrible example of children modeling behavior of their parents. They were doing what they thought was right. They were modeling what they thought was Christian behavior. The religious establishment condoned their efforts. They were lost boys indeed. What a tragedy!
Now move back in time 2000 years before this Crusade and visit another unfortunate time when religious men were modeling ungodly traits, setting unholy examples for adults and children alike. The religious men were priests for the nation Israel. This was a time when worship involved a yearly pilgrimage to the Tabernacle. According to their religious law, a family was required to carry an animal to sacrifice on the altar at the tabernacle each year as a means of atonement for their sins. It was a very holy event, a family event, a time for one generation to teach the next about the high price of sin and how one might be atoned of his or her sin through the offering of a sacrifice. People would come with heavy hearts but leave feeling light and happy because they had done what was pleasing in God’s sight. The burden of their sins had been lifted.
The priests were the religious leaders established by God to be the mediators between God and the people. They were there to assist the people with the sacrifices and pronounce the forgiveness of their sins. A system had been developed so that the priest could keep part of a sacrifice for himself and his family and for those who assisted in their work. This was how the priest earned his living.
Two of the priests assigned to the altar in Shiloh were Hophni and Phinehas. They were brothers. Unfortunately, these men had completely abandoned the holiness of their post and had started taking advantage of the people who came to the temple for worship. They threatened the worshippers and demanded that they hand over to them huge portions of the meat before it had been consumed on an altar. Not only did they take offerings meant for God by threatening the worshippers but they took advantage of the women who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle. Money and women — the PTL scandal of the Old Testament.
The word about the corrupt priest spread all throughout Israel. Bad news always travels fast. It must have had an effect on the number of people who chose to come and worship. In those days there was only one tabernacle. They did not have dozens of tabernacles to choose from. There was only one. If people worshipped in the way they had been taught, they had no choice but to go to the tabernacle and accept whatever Hophni and Phinehas did as priests.
Like the crusades of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this behavior was carried out in the presence of those most influenced by their actions, children. One child in particular observed all the actions of these men. His name was Samuel. He had been brought to the tabernacle by his mother Hanna at the age of 12 to live and to assist the priests in their duties. This same tabernacle was the place she had visited before Samuel was conceived. She went there to pray, to plead with God to open up her womb and to allow her to have a child, to escape the prison of barrenness that surrounded her and caused her great ridicule and shunning by others. There in the tabernacle she bargained with God. If God would give her this child, she would be released from her tormentors. If God would give her this child, she told God she would release the child back to God.
Twelve years later, Hanna, and her husband Elkanah kept that promise. They showed up at the tabernacle, unpacked Samuel’s belongings, and said their good-byes, promising to return for a visit each year when they brought their sacrifice. They left young Samuel in the hands of the priests, feeling confident that he would receive all the moral strength and encouragement a young boy needed to grow up and become a priest himself.
The church has a great burden to carry. The children of the world are in our hands, either directly or indirectly. Some are receiving a Christian foundation within their home. Some are not. Eventually, many if not most children will cross the path of the church as they grow up. It may be brief. The stay may be extended. The window of opportunity to influence that child may not last long. As Christians we are given windows of opportunity to influence children. How are we doing? Sometimes we do well, evidenced by the product we turn out. Other times children develop a negative view of the church, and we wonder what we did wrong. Then there are those individuals who in spite of all the negative influences as a child, emerge with a love of God and a desire to follow God. Such occasions remind us that all children are God’s children and that God is working to redeem his children. Sometimes redemption comes in spite of the negative influence from others, even religious leaders. Look at the life of Samuel for example.
Samuel could not have been prepared for what he saw at the tabernacle. He had to work alongside corrupt religious men. He saw the priests take for themselves what was meant only as a holy sacrifice to God. He saw the young priest taking liberties with the women who were there to serve God. In the midst of the tabernacle setting, Samuel learned the ways of the world. How do you think the evil affected the boy? How would it affect any boy?
Each year his parents traveled to the tabernacle. On one such trip, his mother brought him a robe which he wore in his duties as the priestly assistant. Because the rumors about Hophni and Phinehas had spread throughout Israel, it’s inconceivable that she and her husband would not have known about the corruption. What should she do? Should she take him home and break her promise to God or leave him and allow him to be subjected to the evil of the priests?
The solution to Hannah’s dilemma was Eli. Hannah placed her complete trust in Eli. He was the old priest, the father of Hophni and Phinehas. He was the priest who had pronounced his blessing upon her that led her to believe that she would conceive. His words of more children had come to pass. She trusted Eli to bring up her son in the right ways.
Eli was a good man but had faults of his own. Eli’s sin was the sin of a parent who looks the other way. He did not condone his sons’ behavior. Indeed, he warned them that what they were doing would reap God’s wrath, but apparently Eli’s warnings were not very strong. It even appears that while speaking against his sons’ behavior, he still enjoyed the meat that they took from the worshippers. He was not evil. He just had no backbone to stand up strongly against his sons. As the elder, the tabernacle was his responsibility. He was held accountable. All the while, in his shadow, there stood a young boy, watching, waiting, listening, helping. How would he turn out? What would happen to him as he aged? What morals and values would he assume?
As you know, the Christian church is far from perfect. We’ve come a long way though. We are not involved in crusades. Instead of killing those who disagree with us, we try to win them over with the gospel. Instead of enslaving people for our own ends, we are helping to liberate them with the love of Christ. There still lurks an occasional scandal among the clergy that shames us all, but for the most part men and women of the cloth are trying to serve God and humankind faithfully. Though we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Part of our journey as a church in getting to where God wants us to be will be judged by the generation of the children we are now raising. How will they turn out? What will happen to them as they age? What morals and values will they assume?
Somewhere in the shadow of every church member there lurks a child who is watching, listening, imitating. That child is assimilating our values, our morals, our levels of commitment. Based on what we do and what we say, they are deciding what is important, what is right and what is wrong. That child may be your own, it may be a grandchild, a neighbor’s child, a friend’s child, a child within your own church or community. That child needs from you and me the best possible example. That child needs us because one thing is certain: there abounds the likes of people like Hophni and Phinehas, people who are out for themselves without any care for their immoral life or how it affects others, not even children.
As a parent, I look for and thank God for all those “significant others” who are helping to shape the lives of my children. They need every positive influence possible: school teachers and principals, little league coaches, grandparents, neighbors, other parents, teenagers, church leaders. However, as hard as I attempt to keep my children away from the corrupt and vile influences of the world they are sure to find it, sometimes in places that I thought they were safe from it. Hannah must have been frustrated and disappointed with the priests of Shiloh, even Eli.
Eli loved God. He knew right from wrong. Eli knew what was good and holy. Eli understood righteousness. Yet he was passive. He allowed things to happen that he could have stopped. Regardless of whether there was a young boy attentive to his every need and decision, Eli should have done what was right concerning his sons, as difficult as it would have been. Look at the damage it was causing to the worshippers, to the women who were taken advantage of, the potential damage this behavior was causing to a young boy who desired to be a priest himself. Will God not hold us accountable for the lives we influence? Jesus’ words were direct and strong:
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
Whether we have children of our own or not, it is our responsibility to lead, guide, and direct the children of our church and the children of our community. Like Samuel who looked to Eli, the children around us look to us and often imitate our morals, our values, our commitment to God, and our commitment to the church. We must never doubt the influence we have on our children. Perhaps we all need to appeal to the grace of God because none of us can ever be all that our children need. We should be thankful that God is at work spiritually guiding our children. God uses us tremendously and when we fail, God does not cease His involvement.
If you know the story of Samuel, you know that Samuel turned out all right. In fact, he turned out more than all right. As you read about his life, you will be hard pressed to find anything negative about Samuel in the Bible. Eli must have done a good job then — right? Eli did do a lot of good. It was Eli who directed young Samuel to respond to the voice of God. The well known third chapter of First Samuel records the story of young Samuel hearing the voice of God in the middle of the night. After three times of getting up, thinking the old priest was calling him, Eli tells young Samuel that perhaps the voice he hears is the voice of God and that if he hears the voice again to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.”
Ironically, in the midst of Eli’s passiveness about ignoring God’s voice concerning the sins of his family, he helped young Samuel recognize the voice of God in his life. Even more ironic is that when Samuel listened to God’s voice for the first time, it was a message of condemnation against Eli and his sons, a message that young Samuel reluctantly carried to the old priest.
Samuel did turn out all right, in spite of it all. Why? Because God was pursuing him. This gives me hope. It gives me hope because I know that as hard as I try there are times and days when I have not left the best impression on my children. I know there are times when the world is pushing hard upon them to corrupt them and lead them away from God. Through it all, I must pray and ask that God intervene. I must remember that my children are God’s children and that God above loves them, seeks good things for them and is working on their behalf.
God pursued young Samuel. I pray that God will pursue my children, and yours, and the children of our community and world. I know my example is not enough. I know they have a will and a mind of their own and must make their own choices. I want to guide them, direct them, model for them the righteousness of God. God forbid that I should ever become a Hophni or a Phinehas. The greater temptation is that I should become an Eli — a good man, one who loves God, but one who becomes passive in his relationship to God and allows what is easy and convenient to take the place of what is just and right.
If we are passive when it comes to our relationship with God, not only will we suffer but we may be leading some child, or teenager in the direction of sin. Jesus’ warning is clear on this matter. Let us be thankful that the grace of God can fill in the gaps of our imperfect guidance of our children. Yet, let us also remember the Children’s Crusade of the thirteenth century. May God give us the grace to be examples of faithfulness and fruitfulness to our children.
1Glenn Hinson. The Church Triumphant – A History of Christianity up to 1300. Macon, GA: Mercer Press, 1995, p. 390.

Share This On: