This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 9, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 3 (Proper 5, Year C): 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; and Luke 7:11-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
You may remember that last week, as we were looking at the story of Elijah competing with the prophets of Ba’al, I said that Elijah was an unpleasant person. Well, this week we have another story of Elijah and another example of his unpleasantness. The Rev. Lia Scholl, a Mennonite pastor who writes sermon helps on a blog called The Hardest Question, said, “Every time I read this passage, my first reaction is, ‘Elijah is a jerk!'”
She points out that doesn’t ask for a drink of water or a morsel of bread, he demands them. Listen again to what the First Book of Kings says, “When [Elijah] came to the gate of [Zarephath], a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.'” He doesn’t introduce himself; he doesn’t explain himself; he just insists that the widow take care of his needs. “It’s just jerk behavior,” says the Rev. Scholl.
For the moment, though, let’s forgive Elijah his jerkiness, his unpleasant personality, and take a close look at this story. If it is an historical event (and about that there is some considerable doubt), and if the Books of Kings are intended to be a chronological record, then our lectionary has had us read about events in Elijah’s life out of sequence; this story is told one chapter before the sacrifice competition we heard about last week. The reason for us reading the stories out of order is pretty clear; our lectionary editors want us to hear and consider this story in connection with Jesus’ raising of the son of the widow of Nain.
This story about Elijah would have been very familiar to Jesus and those who witnessed what he did in Nain, and it’s possible that this Elijah story was known to Luke. They may have believed it to be an historical fact, but modern scholarship considers it unlikely that this is a factual story. It has the appearance of being a legend or folk tale intended by the author of First Kings to enhance Elijah’s standing as a prophet. First, there is the matter of the magic flask of oil and the magic container of flour, these vessels that never run out during the course of the three-year drought that is said to be affecting the land. (By the way, Elijah is credited with both causing and ending the drought with just a word, but other than this story in First Kings, there’s no evidence in any other historical or archeological record of there being a drought around his time.) Second, there is the manner in which Elijah brings the widow’s son back from the dead. Here’s the way it is described: “He [meaning Elijah] stretched himself upon the child three times.” This is what folklorists and anthropologists would call “sympathetic magic;” Elijah mimics the death of the boy, then acts out his desired resurrection, then utters some sort of magical formula, in this case a prayer to his god, Yahweh.
Now I said that those who witnessed Jesus raise the son of the widow of Nain probably knew this story and probably thought of it as factual. It is this prayer that Elijah speaks, and in fact the whole theology of the story, that makes me glad that we can look back at it and say it probably isn’t!
Listen to what the widow of Zarephath said to Elijah when her son died: “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!” This is awful theology! The widow blames herself for her child’s death. She believes that something she has done has caused her son to die. We still hear this kind of thinking today; we’ve all heard people in fits of grief cry out, “What have I done to deserve this?” Worse, she blames God because God’s prophet, Elijah, has come to her and this (she believes) has caused her sin to be recalled by God; in turn, because of that recollection, God has caused this terrible judgment (the death of her son) to happen. Now the poor woman in her grief, I suppose, can be forgiven this awful theology.
But Elijah in his prayer, his magic incantation after stretching out on the body of the deceased and enacting the boy’s resurrection, says exactly the same thing to God: “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” According to the theology of this story, God punishes the sinful behavior (what ever it may have been) of parents by murdering their children!
I am often called upon to engage in conversation with atheists who want to tell me why they don’t believe in God. I don’t go looking for these conversations, but wearing a clerical collar in an airport or a restaurant or wherever they just seem to happen. And when they tell me why they don’t believe in God, in addition to all the allegedly scientific reasons about there being no credible experimentally verifiable evidence, there is always some variation on, “I can’t believe in a god that would allow (or cause) children to die.”
“Well, guess what?” I tell them. “I don’t either!” I don’t believe in the god that this story of Elijah portrays. I do not believe the theology of this story is correct! And that’s why I’m glad that I can say, “Modern biblical scholarship strongly suggests that this story never happened.” It was and is merely folklore preserved to enhance the reputation of this jerk Elijah as a powerful, miracle-working prophet of God.
But as I suggested, the people who witnessed Jesus’ action in raising the son of the widow of Nain revered Elijah’s memory and probably did believe it to be factual, and that’s why what Jesus did was so important. Let’s set Elijah and his awful theology aside for a moment and just focus on the gospel story.
First of all, let’s make note of the fact that this story is one of only three in which Jesus raises someone from the dead. One is the raising of the synagogue leader Jairus’s daughter told in all of the Synoptic Gospels. The second is the raising of Lazarus told only in John’s Gospel. And then there is this story told only by Luke.
In the first two, Jesus is asked by the grieving father, or by Lazarus’ grieving sisters, to come and heal their sick relative, but before he comes the patient dies. In this story, there is no request at all, and Jesus’ first knowledge of the death is when he happens upon the funeral procession. Luke writes, “As [Jesus] approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” That’s it, that’s the key to this story. Jesus had compassion for the widow.
What does that word mean to you? When someone is said to be “compassionate,” what do you understand them to be saying? I asked some high-schoolers what it meant to them and one of them volunteered, “Well, it means you feel sorry for someone.” The rest all agreed with that. I suppose to most modern American folk that is what it means. We feel sorry for someone, so maybe we lend a hand if we have the time, or give a few dollars to charity, or if it’s someone we know we bake a casserole. The root of our word “compassion” is Latin for “feeling with” and feeling someone else’s sorrow, feeling “sorry for them” is part of that.
But that doesn’t hold a candle to the word Luke uses to describe Jesus! The Greek text here is the verb splanchnizomai. You know how some words just stick with you? When I was learning Greek that was one that did – splanchnizomai – I just loved the sound of it. It derives from the noun splanchna, which refers to offal, to inner organs – intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys – we would say “guts” today. Jesus didn’t just “feel sorry” for the widow of Nain; he felt this woman’s pain and grief down here, down deep, down in his offal, down in his guts . . . and he was determined to do something for her.
So Jesus does the unthinkable; he interrupts a funeral procession and takes hold of the corpse! In any culture that would be a violation of, at the very least, good taste, but amongst First Century Palestinian Jews this was an act of unspeakable uncleanness; it was a sacrilege! One simply did not touch, let alone grab hold of a dead body!
I was present at both my father’s and my paternal grandfather’s funerals. They were open-casket funerals because of their Lodge affiliations – my father was member of the BPOE; my grandfather, a Mason. Both groups have special funeral services that require an open casket. I remember that the morticians had arrange their hands so that they were laid across their chests, and I remember that both my mother and my grandmother at the conclusion of the services went up to the coffin, reached out, and grabbed hold of their husband’s hands. I’m certain that both of them, if they could have, would have pulled them out of those boxes and made them live again. They couldn’t, of course, but Jesus could do that for the widow of Nain. He could do it and did do it because he had compassion; he felt her pain and her grief right down there in his gut, and he gave her back her son.
And that is what makes this story so different from our Old Testament story!
The theology of the story of Elijah with widow of Zarephath tells of a god who punishes parents’ wrong doing by murdering their children. Jesus showed that theology to be not merely wrong, but awful, monstrously awful! God is a god of life, not of death. God is a god who not only does not murder children to punish their parents, God gives dead children back to their parents.
God moves powerfully beyond our theologies, especially our monstrous theologies, to give new life, to perform a new creation. God is a god of compassion, a god who feels our pain and our suffering and our grief down deep in God’s guts. (One might say that the offal theology of Jesus is beats the awful theology of Elijah.)
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
because the Lord feels their captivity in his guts.
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
because the Lord feels their blindness in his guts.
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
because the Lord feels their degradation in his guts.
the Lord sustains the orphan and widow.
because the Lord feels their pain and grief and loneliness in his guts.
The offal theology of Jesus beats the awful theology Elijah! Hallelujah!
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.