I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7,) 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39.
Prophets and apostles encounter hard times, including death-threats, demons, and separate tables.
I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a.
Our reading continues the mighty works of Elijah, the heroic Moses figure of Israel’s Northern Kingdom.
Elijah has won the mighty battle with the Ba‘al prophets on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:20-40), but he has lost the war! He is now a hunted man, fleeing from Queen Jezebel, sponsor of the Ba‘al worshippers. The prophet flees to Beer-sheba (19:3), last jumping off place for a long wilderness journey to the holy mountain. During that trip through the wilderness God provides food and drink for the prophet (I Kings 19:4-8), just as happened for the Israelites in their wilderness journey to the holy mountain.
At the mountain God challenges Elijah’s presence and the prophet gives a “poor me” version of how bad things have gotten in Israel (verses 9-10). (At a later time, God points out that it was not really that bad; see I Kings 19:18.)
We then have a little prophetic play with the pyrotechnics of great God-appearances (theophanies):
- There is a whopping wind that splits rocks (see the mighty wind in Exodus 15:8-10), followed by the laconic comment, “Yahweh was not in the wind.”
- Then there is an earthquake (see the earthquake in God’s cosmic theophany to save the Davidic king, II Samuel 22:8), followed by the same laconic comment, “Yahweh was not in the earthquake.”
- Next there is fire, as often happens in mighty appearances of God (at Sinai, Exodus 19:18, at Zion, II Samuel 22:9, and spectacularly in Elijah’s own battle on Mount Carmel, I Kings 18:38), but, of course, Yahweh is not in the fire either (verses 11-12).
If God’s communication is not in these wild disruptions of nature, where is it?
In a brief comment we are told, “after the fire, a qōl demāmāh daqqāh.”
According to the most recent lexicographers, this phrase means something like “a calm, soft voice,” though traditionally it is “a still, small voice” (verse 12. The NRSV gives a Zen-like version: “a sound of sheer silence.”) This probably means that God’s real mode of communication is through the voice heard by the charismatic prophet, whose whole life may be possessed by the spirit of God (see the Elisha stories in II Kings 3-8).
So, what does God really have to say?
Our Lectionary doesn’t want you to know!! After some trivial exchange between Yahweh and the prophet, our reading stops abruptly at verse 15a – just before the punch line of the episode!!
In these omitted verses (15b-18), Yahweh, at the holy mountain, authorizes the whole revolution that will transpire in the next fourteen chapters of Kings (through II Kings 11). The Revolution here authorized by God will include the overthrow of the two royal dynasties of Damascus and Israel, and will terminate Ba‘al worship in Israel in bloody massacres (II Kings 8-10).
Not edifying stuff – though it is the same stuff the great religious wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were made of. In Israel’s case, it was from these religious wars that there emerged the exclusive worship of Yahweh as the only God in Israel – and the whole heritage preserved for later centuries in the Hebrew scriptures.
The lesson of today’s reading taken alone (without the punch line about the Revolution) seems to be: what an onerous labor the prophet has, and how his personal complaints are treated rather cavalierly by an awesome God!
Psalms 42 and 43.
The Psalm reading covers two psalms in the traditional numbering, but it’s clear that these two were originally one. The same refrain is repeated at the end of each of three stanzas (42:5, 11; and 43:5). Also, Psalm 43 has no heading, unlike all the surrounding psalms.
If we read the psalm, as the Lectionary invites us to do, as Elijah’s prayer during his abandonment in the wilderness, it is very fitting. He longs for the services in God’s sanctuary as he knew them in normal conditions (verses 1-4), and in the refrain he dialogues with his soul, summoning her to have hope for good days yet to return (verse 5).
Up in the mountain country west of Damascus (where the upper Jordan and Mount Hermon, 42:6, are located), he is reminded of God, his “rock,” by the waterfalls and the pools, which speak to him of God’s loyalty. But this reminds him also of his current abandonment: “Why must I walk about mournfully / because the enemy oppresses me?” He smarts with the taunts of these enemies, “Where is your God?” (verses 6-10, NRSV).
These two stanzas lead to the third, which is the direct prayer, an urgent request to God to act to vindicate this abused prophet. When that vindication happens, he will follow God’s “light” and “truth” to the sanctuary on the hill, approaching the altar and singing God’s praise (43:1-4). “Why are you cast down, O my soul,…? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (43:5, repeating 42:5 and 11).
So could Elijah have prayed after being sent from Horeb to the wilderness of Damascus to wait on the Lord.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about a major conflict among early Christians. The issue is how Jewish do you have to be to be a Christian? Do you (your males) have to be circumcised, and do you have to follow dietary laws that restrict who can eat together?
After the happy days of the new gospel-life among the (non-Jewish) Galatians, new teachers had come from Jerusalem or Antioch to convince the people that, Yes, they do have to observe all the Jewish laws.
The new law-teachers based their teachings on the scriptures. Jewish election by God had begun with Abraham, and the covenant with Abraham required circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14). All subsequent Jewish law followed and was based on that covenant.
For Paul this new development was a violent betrayal of the true gospel (see Galatians 1:6-9). After defending the divine source of his own gospel, and stating its fundamental principle of justification by faith (chapters 1-2), Paul turns to the scripture arguments that these law-teachers have been using among the Galatians. There are two main points: (1) Abraham and (2) the Law.
(1) Abraham. In Galatians 3:6, Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 how Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (NRSV). For Paul, this means that Abraham was “righteous before God” prior to any requirement of law (including circumcision) had entered the picture. Later people could also be reckoned “righteous before God,” not by observing the law, but by being included in the faith of Jesus Christ (2:15-21, last week’s Epistle reading).
(2) The law. The law came in between Abraham and Christ. It came through Moses, “four hundred and thirty years” after Abraham (3:17, referring to Exodus 12:40). Paul now explains, in our reading, that the purpose of the law during this interim period was to be a “disciplinarian” (NRSV), a “custodian” (RSV, CEB). (The Greek word is paidagogos, a live-in tutor and trainer to advantaged young men.)
This image tells us that the law put the elect people through a lot of exercises as they were growing up, to condition them to a mature life of faith. When, through the faithfulness of Christ, believers are now included in Christ, they are no longer under the law, whether they were previously observant or not. Now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (verse 28).
This gospel of Paul’s had an eschatological background, and much of the subsequent struggle of early Christian churches and traditions was how to implement such an eschatological vision in specific social and eventually institutional forms. The one point that seems clear is that Paul’s gospel would always insist on subordinating human traditions and exclusionary boundaries to compassion and care for brothers and sisters.
If such compassion were given priority over the details of the law, none would be separated from the common tables in Antioch (2:11-14).
The Gospel reading from Luke is about an encounter of Jesus with demonic powers in non-Jewish territory.
The story is skillfully presented and need not be retold here. Let us note that this is “foreign” territory, over on the east side of the “Lake.” The spelling of the name of the place and its precise location are uncertain, but its foreignness is not. That country maintained herds of hogs, clearly not a Jewish commercial enterprise or a Jewish market.
The story highlights the dialogue between Jesus and the demons that possess this unfortunate wild man. Jesus asks the possessed man his name, meaning the name of the demonic power. The demon, presumably forced to tell the truth by Jesus’ superior authority, says his/their name is Legion. The demons then beg Jesus not to send them “back into the abyss” – anywhere but back to hell! Unfortunately for the local pig farmers, the demons are allowed to run amuck with one of the pig herds, which is destroyed in the lake.
At a somewhat leisurely pace, for typical Gospel stories, we hear how the local population comes out, learns the details of things, are struck with profound awe, and urge Jesus to take his vast powers elsewhere. One has to suppose that there was a certain light note to this story, even as it was repeated around early Christian circles in the second generation of Christian teachers and hearers. In the lands of the (demon-infested) nations [Gentiles], the true implications of Jesus’ power could not be grasped, much less the meaning of his whole mission.
Still, the former demoniac, now in good health, stayed around and kept telling his story all over the city-state (verse 39).