The Preacher’s Study
3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
John W.B. Hill
1 Kings 17.8-16 (17-24)
The first reading, from the cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah, resonates with the gospel reading (provided the semicontinuous selection includes the optional verses). But the resonance goes deeper than the miracle of bringing a young man back to life. For centuries the church has been preoccupied with a Christology grounded in proof texts rather than in the paschal mystery; and miracle stories have been at the centre of this power-play (raising the dead as the revelation of Jesus divine identity). But “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” as the crucifixion of Jesus reveals (1 Cor. 1:25).
In both stories, the context is critical to the meaning of the miracle. The context of 1 Kings 17 is the national idolatry sanctioned by King Ahab, and the drought predicted by Elijah (who is keeping out of harm’s way by holing up with the widow of Zarephath). Is there a connection? Drought as divine punishment for idolatry? Perhaps even the death of the widow’s son as divine punishment, as she seems to think?
It is ironic that the ‘fertile crescent’ (as we sometimes call it) has become, over the centuries, one of the more arid regions on earth. Once covered in lush forests (remember the cedars of Lebanon?), the forests have disappeared, burned as fuel: not just to cook with, but to fuel kilns for brick and smelters for copper and iron. Today we would call this a problem of resource management; but that would simply be exposing our anthropocentrism. ‘The earth is ours to plunder’? or ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’? Forests are much more than a ‘resource;’ yet we still haven’t learned! Even worse consequences await us and our children as a result. Blaming it on God is nothing other than fatalism.
So drought is not God’s punishment but the result of our idolatry – of money, of human prowess – both then and now. God is the source of life in all its vast richness; and God is the compassionate Saviour who hears the cry of the widow, that perennial victim of our idolatry.
The context of Luke 7 is a social order in which widows without family are doomed to a life of poverty and prostitution. Patriarchal order is yet another form of idolatry, with cruel consequences. But the God revealed by Jesus calls us out of such fatalism, raising the dead and making all things new. The crowd’s response is fear, and the recognition that “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!” Indeed!
In light of this encounter with ‘prophets’ who awaken us from our idolatry, we should note that it was the memory of Elijah that shaped Paul’s account of his conversion in Galatians 1. If we had read one verse more last Sunday in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we would have heard how Elijah massacred those humiliated prophets; and Paul reminds us of his own record, “violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it,” because he was so “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” That was exactly Elijah’s excuse: “I have been very zealous for the Lord” (1 Kings 19:10,14). James Alison observes that Paul’s conversion was “the recognition that in his zeal to serve God, it had been God whom he had been persecuting. For him, the still small voice was the voice of the crucified and risen victim...” Any god we serve with violence is an idol.
NOTE: In last week’s post, I suggested waiting to comment at length on the Elijah narrative until the second half of the story is told on June 12. However, I should have said “June 19,” when 1 Kings 19 is read.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
Etchings of the biblical story of Elijah and The Widow of Zarephath, by Marc Chagall.