2nd Sunday after Pentecost – June 10, 2007
1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17
Today, we are treated to two very similar stories. First, from the First Book of Kings we heard the story in which the Lord sends Elijah to Zarephath in Sidon to be fed by a widow. This doesn’t seem much of a journey to us and the text of our lesson don’t really help us to understand the gravity of this command. If we had started our reading just a few verses earlier, at the end of Chapter 16, we would have read these words:
Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. (1 Kings 16:30-33)
Through the ministry of Elijah, Yahweh has been at war with the prophets of Baal and now Yahweh is raising the stakes! Not only is Yahweh going to defeat Baal, he will send Elijah to Baal’s home base of Sidon and take care of him there. Further, Yahweh will use a widow to do it.
As you know, in the world ancient Israel widows were at the bottom of the economic ladder. Of all the poor people, widows were the poorest. Widows often could not survive themselves. It is preposterous to think that a widow could also feed a freeloading prophet! But God sends Elijah and he goes to the widow’s house. When he arrives he asks her for some food. She replies that she is down to her last bit of ground grain and she is in the process of preparing that for herself and her son. Once they have eaten that, they will starve to death. Elijah cheerfully told her not to worry about that, but to give him her last meal. The God of Israel, Yahweh, rather than the god of her own country, Baal, will provide her food until the drought then affecting the land is over.
No one in their right mind do what Elijah suggests, let alone a widow facing her last meal. But this woman does what Elijah asks and, just as he promised, her supply of flour and oil lasts as long as she needs it. The author of First Kings notes that this miracle was “according to the word of the Lord.” (v. 16) Yahweh has met the challenge and once again beaten down a false god: in Baal’s home territory Yahweh fed his prophet through a widow who had less than nothing, and he took care of the widow, too.
But the story doesn’t end there. Shortly after she feeds the phophet and receives the reward of the never-ending flour and oil, her son is taken ill with what appears to be some sort of respiratory disease and he dies. “His illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him,” says the text. In her grief, the widow blames Elijah! Elijah responds with compassion and taking the boy’s body to a private room he cries out to God: “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son? … O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”
There is a stark economic reality at work here. The widow’s son was her source of security, meaning, and even life. His death took away all meaning from the miracle of the never-ending flour and oil. Of what use is that in the face of her son’s death. It is significant that this story takes place in the context of a drought, for rain is not simply a bit of unpleasant weather in an agricultural economy. In a very real sense, rain is the very life of an agrarian community. The drought and the son’s death are both symbols of the end of life – not just the boy’s life, but of all life.
Yahweh, however, proves to be the master of life and death. At the prayer of Elijah, God restores the boy to life and widow’s response, exclaiming that the word of the Lord is truth, affirms the power, reliability and faithfulness of God. Not long after this, Elijah will go to Ahab and challenge him and the prophets of Baal to a demonstration of divine power which will culminate in Yahweh’s bringing of rain and ending the famine. The God of life triumphs again.
Which brings us the to the Gospel passage which tells of Jesus raising a widow’s only son in a manner reminiscent of the miracle performed by Elijah. But where the emphasis in the story from First Kings is on the power of God, the emphasis in the Gospel story is on Jesus’ compassion for the widow. It exhibits Jesus’ gracious concern for the most vulnerable and helpless. He touches the bier just as Elijah touched the dead boy, both exposing themselves to contamination according to the Old Testament Holiness Code. Both Jesus and Elijah demonstrate that liturgical purity must yield to the higher law of mercy. Both Jesus and Elijah return the widows’ sons to them. But note this difference … Elijah calls on the Lord to raise the boy in Sidon; Jesus himself raises the boy in Nain. The God of life triumphs again.
The story of Elijah demonstrates (in the widow’s words) that the word of the Lord is truth. The story from Luke’s Gospel demonstrates that Jesus is the word of God himself.
Today’s Psalm, read between these two stories, reminds us that God is the One who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, who sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind, who watches over strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146). Both of these stories illustrate the Psalmist’s declaration: God’s lordship is expressed in a bias toward the down and out of society represented by these unfortunate widow’s. God’s response to Elijah’s prayer in Sidon and Jesus’ response at meeting the funeral procession in Nain, were each a spontaneous act of compassion for the grieving woman.
That type of compassion is the hallmark of God’s kingship and of Christian love. The Lord gives food to the hungry and upholds the widow not out of some cosmic obligation, some noblesse oblige writ large, but out of compassionate love. The God of life is moved by human suffering. For incomprehensible reasons, the creator of the universe, the one who made heaven and earth, grieves with us when we grieve, suffers with us when we suffer, keeps faith with us forever. For that, for the love, power, reliability and faithfulness of God shown in these stories, our only response can be to join with the Psalmist:
Praise the Lord, O my soul! *
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. (Ps. 146:1)