June 5, 2016
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24
This morning I walked through a cemetery, past the graves of several children. The little crosses and plastic flowers made me think how when a child dies, the timing seems unconscionable. We might talk about how an adult dies “before his time,” but when a child’s life is snatched away too soon by disease, accident, or violence, something deeper hits us: a sense of wrong, of tragedy, of lost potential, of vacated dreams. No parent should have to grieve the death of a son or daughter. Yet when we stare into the blackness of such a loss, there is a glimmer of hope.
Elijah, the House Guest
That glimmer is what our First Reading for this Sunday from 1 Kings focuses on. The story begins with the prophet Elijah as a house guest with a widow and her son. This reading is not really the beginning, but the second or third episode in this story. The story really begins when Ahab, the king of Israel, gets married to a foreign woman, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon (1 Kgs 16:31). To please his new wife, Ahab starts worshiping the god of the Sidonians, Baal. In addition, he builds an altar and temple to Baal and votive objects for his consort goddess, Asherah (16:32-33). Yet the Israelites were God’s people, only to worship him. In fact, that was the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3 RSV). But the king of Israel is leading his people astray, promoting the worship of the false deity.
A Drought on the Rain-God
Now Baal was a god associated with storms and fertility. In the ideology of his cult, he caused rain to fall upon the earth and make the crops grow. In order to combat the spread of Baal worship by illustrating his powerlessness, the prophet Elijah prophesies a great drought on the land: “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kgs 17:1). Now a drought of this length and severity would be crippling to the economy and would imperil people’s lives. Elijah himself grows hungry under the famine brought about by the drought and makes his way to the town of Zarephath—a pagan town, north of Israel, in between the great cities of Tyre and Sidon, the home-turf of the god, Baal. There he finds a widow, who is starving, and he requests to share the last meal she and her son will eat (17:11-13). When she shares her food with him, the grain and oil miraculously multiplies and continues to feed her and her son for the duration of the drought (17:16). The lives of the widow and her son are spared!
Blaming the Prophet
Yet, in our reading, the son of the woman takes ill and dies during this time, while Elijah is staying with them. Immediately, the woman blames the prophet: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (1 Kgs 17:18) (A side note: The phrase she uses to accuse Elijah is literally “what to me and to you,” the same phrase Jesus uses with Mary at Cana in John 2:3.) If he could provide food for them by God’s power, then surely he would have the power to kill them by God’s power. How quick we are to blame God when things go wrong! Rather than trusting in his omnipotence, we use it as a reason to be suspicious of him. To the widow, it seems unusually cruel to save her life and her son’s life from famine only to take away his by disease and leave her in mourning. But she had no idea what God had in store. All she could see was the blackness, no glimmer.
Retrieving the Nephesh
Elijah takes the lifeless boy and prays to God for him, engaging in an especially intense ritual of healing prayer, in which he lays on top of the boy three times and pleads with God that his nephesh return to him. Nephesh is difficult to translate—it can mean breath, life, throat, person, soul, among other things. Here, I think we should see it is as the life-force of the boy, the same kind of “breath” that God breathes into Adam (Gen 2:7). Miraculously, the boys’ nephesh returns to him, and God raises him from the dead. Jesus will recapitulate this miracle by raising the son of the widow of Nain in this Sunday’s gospel (Luke 7:11-17).
Now the woman’s life had been saved once, by the miraculous food the Lord provided by Elijah. Yet only after the boy is raised from the dead does the woman reach a point of real faith: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (1 Kgs 17:24). The first miracle was enough to feed her, but didn’t prompt the inner change that the Lord sought. It is only the second miracle that brings her to faith. Perhaps if she had come to believe the first time, this second episode would be unnecessary, but as it was, she did truly come to believe.
Blessing, Gratitude and Glimmer
This reading offers us a handful of lessons: Sometimes we don’t really understand where our blessings are coming from. The Israelites and Sidonians thought that Baal gave them rain, but Elijah’s prophetic drought reveals that only the Lord, the true God, can bring rain. Again, we sometimes don’t know what we have until we lose it—that is, we are not truly thankful for the blessings we have. It was only the boy’s death that brought his mother to the point of anger and desperation necessary to bring about true faith when his life was restored. With the death of her son, it would seem that all is lost, that darkness has triumphed. Yet God’s power, working through Elijah, shows that that glimmer of hope we can sometimes find in tragedy has the power to overcome the darkness. That glimmer is important, because sometimes it is all we have.