Unexpected interventions make possible new life.
Ordinary Time. As the holy seasons leading up to and following Easter conclude, what is called “Ordinary Time” occupies the Lectionary. From now till Advent in late November, the readings are not based on religious seasons. Rather, the lectionary selections during Ordinary Time are aimed at expanding the congregation’s general education in the Scriptures.
In Year C, the primary readings from the Hebrew scriptures provide a history of prophecy, moving from the work of Elijah through the great eighth century prophets Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, then dwelling at length on the words of Jeremiah in the last period of the kingdom of Judah. Because the Hebrew scriptures are so much longer than the New Testament, the Lectionary gives two sets of readings for the Hebrew scriptures during Ordinary Time, providing alternate readings as well as the primary selections. Three years ago, I commented on the alternate readings during this period of the year. This year I will return to the primary readings, giving a selected survey of the great prophets of Israel.
During the same six months the Epistle selections are taken from Paul’s letters, reading most of Galatians and Colossians for two months, and, after a period on the Letter to the Hebrews, continuing with the Pastoral letters written in Paul’s name. A block of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews is included in each year of the Lectionary cycle, approximately a third of the Letter in each year. The readings in Year C are the third part (chapters 11-13), dealing with the Christian pilgrimage in the world.
The Gospel readings during Ordinary Time of Year C are taken entirely from Luke, covering much of chapters 7 through 21, though mainly selected from the materials of the Journey to Jerusalem in chapters 10-18, where many teachings found only in Luke are given.
I Kings 17:9-16 (17-24)
For the next several weeks our readings from the Hebrew scriptures concern the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The Special Note below on the Background to Elijah and Elisha may be useful for this group of readings. Elijah is a kind of Moses figure – in the sense of being larger than life and 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!
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. These years become a kind of waiting period during which the divine promise has been given but the reality lies in the future. During those years Elijah moves mysteriously around the country – or outside the country – to avoid confrontation with the authorities (see the discussion in I Kings 18:7-16). During these wanderings God provides for the prophet’s needs. Our reading presents two incidents of this waiting period.
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)
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 story makes 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 part of our reading tells a second incident with the widow (verses 17-24). 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 alternate is Psalm 30.) 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] 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 for the next five weeks are from Galatians. We will read much of the letter in sequence. (In some years, when Ordinary Time is at its maximum length, there are six readings from Galatians, beginning with 1:1-10.)
The letter to the Galatians is the most informative writing we have about Paul’s early work. (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 his movements and activities 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. 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. 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.
Galatians is not for everyone or every time. Galatians is not for times of anarchy and aimlessness. It is for times when imposing powers are holding humans in bondage by their accumulated authority and rigidity. It is for times when a new spirit must release captives from ancient loyalties that have become despotic and deadly. A new divine intervention is announced and the consequences for old things and old ways are just beginning to be spelled out. Such is the potential behind all the (to us) old-fashioned language of this powerful letter.
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, a centurion who was not a Jew but a friendly supporter of Jewish practice (see 7:4-5). Unlike the prophetic story of 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 next episode in Luke’s narrative (following Mark closely here). John the Baptist – Elijah in the Gospels – has sent messengers to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah, and Jesus’ reply includes the following. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22, NRSV). The Nain story documents the raising of the dead in the report to John.
Perhaps more to the point, the Nain story emphasizes Jesus’ compassion. Coming upon the funeral without any prior connection (at least in the Gospels), 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.
Special Note. Background to the Elijah and Elisha stories.
It was in the time of Elijah (and Elisha) that Israel’s obligation to serve “Yahweh alone” became a great public issue. The revelation that Israel must have no other God than Yahweh was the point of the battle of the gods on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), and the rest of the Elijah-Elisha cycle of stories demonstrates at length how radically serious that revelation had to be taken in Israel.
The overall framework of the Elijah-Elisha block of materials in I Kings 17 through II Kings 10 is that of a great dynastic revolution. The framework is clearer if we concentrate only on the following passages, which are the essential components of the Elijah-Elisha and King Jehu story:
I Kings 17 Elijah brings drought and works miracles.
I Kings 18, Elijah brings rain, defeating Baal prophets on Mount Carmel.
I Kings 19, Elijah receives God’s revolutionary commands on Mount Horeb.
I Kings 21, Ahab and Jezebel are condemned for Naboth’s vineyard.
II Kings 1, Elijah condemns Ahab’s son Ahaziah.
II Kings 2, Elijah’s Mantle passes to Elisha.
II Kings 8:7-15, Elisha sanctions revolution in Damascus.
II Kings 9:1-13, Elisha anoints Jehu king for revolution in Israel.
II Kings 9-10, Jehu executes the judgment of the Lord on Ahab’s house.
It may be noticed that the Elijah-Elisha story is parallel in basic structure to the traditional Israelite story. Elijah and Elisha replicate the work of Moses and Joshua. Elijah’s defeat of the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel is the same kind of decisive mighty deed of the Lord as the defeat of Pharaoh in the Exodus; Elijah’s trip to Mount Horeb (with miraculous feeding in the wilderness) and the revelation there of God’s plan parallels Moses at Mount Sinai; and the revolution precipitated by Elisha equals the Conquest of a new life order for God’s people (meaning the reign of a new dynasty with a radically new religious policy).
All of the Elijah-Elisha materials were preserved in later generations in Jerusalem, harmonized with a Jerusalem viewpoint. Somehow that Jerusalem viewpoint accepted the rationale of this story cycle, accepted the Jehu dynasty’s own view that the God of Israel had sanctioned Jehu’s rule in Israel just as God had sanctioned the dynasty of David in Jerusalem. It was by Yahweh’s own command that Jehu and four generations of his heirs reigned over the northern kingdom from 842 to about 745 BCE, the longest single dynasty of that kingdom. Jehu’s revolution was a religious war, fought to the finish, leaving no doubt that there is only one God in Israel’s destiny.
As Jerusalem saw it a hundred and fifty years later, the northern kingdom did not sufficiently learn that lesson, and suffered the fate of defeat and exile because of their apostasy from Yahweh. Jerusalem preserved the stories of Elijah and Elisha to make sure they mastered the lesson of Yahweh as the Only God of Israel. It was to that God that the Judeans looked for their own deliverance and guidance toward whatever peace was possible for them.