I Kings 17:8-16, (17-24); Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17.
Unexpected interventions make possible new life.
I Kings 17:9-16 (17-24).
Elijah in prophetic tradition is a kind of Moses figure. (See the Special Note on Elijah and Elisha in last Sunday’s Biblical Words.) Like the great leader of the exodus, he is a being larger than life, presenting folks with big scary and awesome happenings.
He first appears in the Scriptures to make a challenging announcement, without any introduction or preparation: “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (I Kings 17:1, NRSV modified). This announcement sets the stage for the coming warfare of the gods (the contest in I Kings 18:20-46)! A period of years must now pass while the drought and famine become severe so the final test can be held of what god controls the weather.
When things have gotten bad because of the drought, God sends Elijah to a widow in Zarephath, a town in the territory of the city-state of Sidon (in modern Lebanon). The widow is out gathering a few sticks of wood to cook a last meal for herself and her son. She is surprisingly patient as the prophet asks her first for water, then for food. Asked for food, she laments, “As Yahweh your God lives, I have … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug,” and she concludes by telling him they are about to die.
Elijah doesn’t let go! “First make me a little cake… afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (verse 13). This seems a bit outlandish to us, but Elijah tips his hand by saying, “Thus says Yahweh the God of Israel:
The jar of meal will not be emptied
and the jug of oil will not fail
until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth.
(Verse 14, NRSV, modified.)
(In an earlier setting, this was probably a cultic oracle, assuring that rain will come before famine.)
It seems clear that the mysterious prophet has tested the poor woman. Will she yield to the holy man’s extravagant claim upon her last meager resources, or will she close him out because of her own desperate need? The details of the story make clear that God sent the prophet to a compassionate and admirable non-Israelite woman. (Jesus would encounter such a passionate non-Israelite woman as he wandered in this same territory of Sidon, Mark 7:24-30.)
The optional reading (verses 17-24) tells a second incident with the same widow. Her son becomes very ill and dies. Just as the holy man is the cause of the good that comes to them, so he must be the cause of the evil that comes. So the widow says, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (verse 18). To prove that he is not an agent of doom, Elijah takes the child upstairs, raises an aggressive lament to Yahweh, performs a few magical operations, and brings the boy back to life.
Besides the food in the famine, bringing the dead back to life is a sign of a major-caliber intervention of God into the dismal affairs of innocent and depressed folks among Israel’s neighbors.
The psalm reading is a hallelujah piece in which the speaker shouts out a few affirmations that are background chorus to both the prophetic and the Gospel readings.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
[The Lord is one] who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow. (Verses 3-4, 6-7, 9, NRSV.)
The Epistle readings continue from the letter to the Galatians.
This letter is the most informative writing we have about the events of Paul’s early career. (Acts on early Paul is second or third hand at best. Galatians itself is very direct and under oath, see verse 20.) Our reading is Paul’s own account, not of the great revelation experience – which we would like so much for him to describe – but of certain of his movements and contacts during his first seventeen years as a believer in Christ.
The urgent point that leads Paul to recite these events is the divine intervention that caused Paul’s apostolate and that established the gospel for the nations, the gospel that transcended the Jewish torah. Paul’s gospel is God’s work, not the work of humans. “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (verses 11-12, NRSV).
The total letter to the Galatians insists that a new thing has happened. As with all great movements and institutions in human history, times come when the past structures, forms, and customs have become burdensome, have come to require more effort to sustain than the benefit they provide is worth. Even if the old forms are retained, in whole or in part, they must be infused with new life, a new power to generate history and not just suffer it.
That is, there must be reformations, even revolutions, for humankind to continue in creative and flourishing life. Such a time, Paul announces, has come through the coming and death of Jesus Christ. The discussions of “justification” and the polarity of law and grace in Galatians are about such a new departure, about such a new advent of life in, or in place of, old ways of being in the world.
The Gospel reading is a twin to the prophetic reading. A widow whose only son has died receives him back from death through the care of a holy man. In a world that would normally know only a funeral, a divine intervention occurs and life continues because of a radically new possibility.
The story set in the Galilean village of Nain is told only by Luke. It follows the story of healing the servant of the Roman centurion in Capernaum, and this next episode takes Jesus to yet another Galilean town. Unlike the prophetic story of Elijah raising the widow’s son, this is not set in foreign territory, but also, Jesus had no prior contact with this widow so he is not somehow responsible for the family, as Elijah was in Zarephath.
In part, Luke has put this story here because of the episode that follows in Luke’s narrative. When Jesus reported to John the Baptist the marvelous things happening in this messianic dawn (7:18-23), the list includes “the dead are raised” (7:22). The Nain story documents that “sign” of God’s intervention in the present age. As the dead were raised when God acted powerfully in old times, so now, in the dawn of a new time of God’s rule, even the dead are raised! (The material surrounding the widow of Nain story – the Centurion before and the report to the Baptist after – are from the Q source; see Matthew 8:5-13 and 11:2-6.)
Perhaps more to the point, the Nain story emphasizes Jesus’ compassion. Coming upon the funeral with no prior connection (that we are told of), Jesus “had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” (verse 13). As life is going on its ordinary tragic way, a compassionate one intervenes and a whole new life possibility begins.