OUR GOD IS A GOD OF LIFE!
The loving giver and preserver of all life, God is unjustly accused when conceived of as a vengeful, punishing despot who wrests the breath of life from the weak and sinful (1 Kings). In the words and works of Jesus, the mind and purpose of the Father have been made known. Caretaker of the poor and help of the sinner, God restores life to the spirit as well as to the body (Luke). His mercy supersedes the law and tempers strict justice with love (Galatians).
1 Kings 17:17-24
In the first and second book of Kings the prophetic cycles of Elijah and Elisha contribute a liberal blend of legend and saga within the context of certain historical events. Each story in the two cycles portrayed the prophets as men of God and thereby established the authority of their word (over and against those who opposed that word) and validated the God for whom the prophets spoke. Illustrating the prophets’ effectiveness in a series of prediction fulfillment stories, the authors of Kings asserted again and again the superiority of Yahweh over the baals of Canaan, Phoenicia, etc.
Elijah was from Tishbe in Gilead and served his people as prophet in the first half of the ninth century B.C.E., during the reigns of Ahab and Ahaziah (ca. 869-849 B.C.E.). Serious religious and political crises plagued Israel during this period. Ahab engaged his people in a series of wars against the Arameans but later allied his troops unsuccessfully with the Ararmean armies when the Assyrian armies of Shalmanesar III threatened. On the religious front, Ahab was an even less effective leader. Indifferent to the religion of his forefathers, Ahab permitted his wife, the Tyrian princess Jezebel, to build a temple to her baal, Melgart, in Samaria (I Kings 16:32). Jezebel also imported prophets from Phoenicia to convince the already interested Israelites of the benefits of her native religion.
Like a courageous warrior, Elijah faced both his king and queen, fearlessly denouncing their faults and predicting God’s wrath in the form of a drought if they did not comply with the truth. For his efforts, Elijah was forced to escape into the desert where he was protected and guided by the Lord. Having taken refuge with a widow and her son in a place called Zarephath, Elijah promised the poor woman that, because of her generous hospitality to him, her food supply would not be depleted until such time as the drought would end and she could again provide for her needs (1 Kings 17:8-16). At this point in the cycle today’s first reading appears.
Even though the woman recognized the prophet as a man of God, she attributed the death of her son to the fact that Elijah was a guest in her home. In a sense, she believed that Elijah’s presence had the effect of calling down the judgment of a vengeful God, because of her sins: “Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” This erroneous attitude was prevalent during the Old Testament period (recall Job, Ezekiel 18: 1-32) and even survived into the Christian era (John 9:2). Like her contemporaries, the woman believed that God punished the sins of the parents in their children and vice-versa and that physical sufferings, etc., were due to sin. Elijah’s action in restoring the woman’s son to life was intended to correct the notion that God vengefully willed death as punishment for sin. Indeed, Elijah’s wonderful deed underscored the loving pardon of God for the sinner whom he wished to heal and enliven.
The mysterious manner in which Elijah resuscitated the boy may have given the impression that his was a magical power like the sorcerers of Jezebel. But the ritual of stretching himself three times over the boy in the secrecy of the upper room has been shown to be an act of God, by virtue of the prayer that accompanied the prophet’s actions.
From the first decades of the Jesus movement, insightful believers were aware that monolithic concurrence on every aspect of theology, christology and missiology was not possible or even desirable. Paul’s ideas with regard to the gentile mission and the relation of Christianity to its Jewish matrix differed at times from those of his contemporaries in Jerusalem. So too, Stephen and Philip exercised their ministries among the Hellenist Christians in a manner distinct from their Jewish-Christian counterparts. Nevertheless, the power of the Spirit enabled the plurality of ideas and methods to merge into one viable and effective community with one purpose and one mission. At times, however, conflicts arose due to hostile elements whose misguided efforts threatened to stifle the church’s growth. In Galatia, Paul encountered such a situation as is reflected in today’s second reading and in the rest of his letter to the churches of Galatia.
Originally, the Galatains were an Indo-Aryan tribe related to the Celts who had settled in the central Asia Minor valley of Halys during the third century B.C.E. In 25. B.C.E., Caesar Augustus made the area a Roman province called Galatia. When Paul traveled through Galatia on his first missionary journey, he met in the various communities a mixed but predominantly gentile population. There he brought the gospel of Jesus to those who had no Jewish background and consequently his preaching did not emphasize the role of the Mosaic law or circumcision. Rather, Paul preached the good news of Jesus and taught his hearers the decisive role of faith in the economy of salvation.
Shortly after Paul left the Galatian province, he received news that certain agitators (Galatians 1:7) had been circulating among his new Christian converts in an effort to convince them that Paul’s had not been the true gospel but a diluted version. Moreover these opponents impugned Paul’s authority and tried to convince the gentile Christians that, in order to become authentic followers of Christ, they first had to adhere to the law, the ritual of circumcision, etc.
Usually the name “Judaizers” had been applied to those who attacked Paul and his work and they appeared to represent a sort of Christian Pharisaism. Upon hearing the trouble the Judaizers were fomenting, Paul reacted with surgical swiftness, eager to cut out of the gentile mission the hostile and, according to Paul, anti-Christian elements. Galatians is a polemical message, the earliest and first complete statement of gentile Christian theology. In it, Paul warned that the acceptance of the Judaizers’ demand would be contrary to the gospel which insisted on freedom vis-à-vis the law. To defend himself against the accusations leveled against him Paul recalled his Damascus encounter.He explained that his gospel was not of human contrivance, but a result of divine revelation (Galatians 1: 18) just as was Peter’s (Matthew 16:16).
As J. Fitzmeyer has observed, Paul’s conversion experience enlightened him about the essential dynamic character of the gospel, not necessarily its form. As is evident in Paul’s writings, he did receive the tradition from authoritative human witnesses; this he handed on to his proselytes. By detailing (vv. 13ff) his life as a Jew and his zealous efforts against the church, Paul explained that the Mosaic law and its practices had hardly prepared him for his dramatic about-face and preaching of freedom from the law. These he had learned directly from Christ, whose apostle he was. Like Jeremiah and like the Isaian suffering servant, Paul claimed to have been called from the womb and commissioned to preach to the gentiles.
Differing from Luke’s account in Acts, Paul claimed to have traveled to Arabia immediately after his conversion and mandate. Probably, Arabia should be understood as the Nabatean kingdom of King Aretas IV Philopatris in Transjordan, east and south of Damascus. Only casually did Paul mention his later visit to Jerusalem but the verb (historesai: v. 18) gives a clue to his purpose. Translated “get to know” in most translations, the verb actually means “to receive information,” “to inquire.” Therefore it is clear Paul did consult with the Jerusalem church authorities. Still, his original methods and insights were respected and helped the Jesus movement to survive the Judaizers and to recognize its essentially universal character.
This is one of the three occasions on which Jesus restored a dead person to life, but the restoration of the widow’s son is unique to Luke’s gospel. All three synoptics have recorded the raising of Jairus’ daughter and only John has narrated the sign of Lazarus. Because the Nain story has been told by Luke alone, the reader should be aware of certain Lucan themes and emphases. For example, the fact that the story centers upon a woman, and a widowed woman at that, reflects the evangelist’s penchant for showing Jesus’ concern for the disadvantaged of society. Also, the whole event has been cast in such a way as to recall the same deed as performed by the prophet Elijah (see first reading). By presenting Jesus in the same light as the ninth century prophet, who had become an eschatological figure connected with the advent of the messiah, Luke underscored the actions of Jesus as having eschatological and messianic significance.
However, it is clear in the narrative that Luke did not wish to present Jesus only as an Elijah figure. Indeed, the evangelist has stressed thedifference and superiority of Jesus’ power by explaining that he healed with a word. There are none of the mysterious rituals (stretching out, breathing, etc.) in Jesus’ simple actions. Moreover, whereas Elijah performed his rite over the boy three times and prayed to God for success, Jesus had power of himself to effect what he willed. While Luke wished his readers to remember Elijah, he did not want them to misconstrue Jesus’ identity. While Elijah was anticipated as herald of the kingdom and of a renewed humanity, Jesus was himself that kingdom and the bringer of a new life to all of humankind.
Nain (modem day Nein) was a town six miles southeast of Nazareth in the valley of Jezreel. Later Jewish tradition renamed it Naim which in Hebrew means “pleasant.” The funeral procession that Jesus halted was obviously accompanied by relatives and friends. Probably there were also the traditional professional mourners and dirge singers. Archaeologists in this century have discovered rock graves just east of the city; it is quite possible this was the site used by the town in antiquity. Because Luke used a rare and technical medical term in v. 15 to describe the man’s action (“the dead man sat up”; also in Acts 9:40), some scholars have cited this text as further proof of the, evangelist’s medical background. “Fear” (v. 16) was the customary reaction to a manifestation of wondrous power. Followed immediately by the crowd’s praising God, the response to Jesus’ work indicated that his was seen as a divine ability.
It is significant that faith was not mentioned as a motive for Jesus’ action; indeed, from the story, it would appear that compassion had moved him to act. This act, plus the nature of the miracle, underscored Jesus’ work as a signal of the messianic era. Jewish tradition anticipated the age of the messiah as one in which all the suffering and the poor would be restored (Isaiah 61:1, 35:5-6). In addition, there was also a belief that, at the coming of the eschatological period, there would be a general resurrection of those Israelites who had died before the eschaton (Isaiah 26:19, 2 Maccabees 7:9-36, Daniel 12:2-3). That Luke wished his readers to see in Jesus the realization of all messianic hopes is further emphasized by his designation of Jesus as “the Lord.” Used for the first time in this pericope, “the Lord” would thenceforth be repeated many times in Luke’s gospel as a divine title for Jesus. Ho kyrios is the Greek translation for the divine name, Yahweh. Its application to Jesus in the context of a life-giving miracle is all the more appropriate.
An examination of the context of this miracle with regard to the rest of the gospel would indicate that Luke had so placed it to prepare for the answer of Jesus to John the Baptizer’s disciples in 7:22. When asked if he were the one to come, Jesus replied, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life and the poor have the good news preached to them.” In answering the needs of the blind, the deaf, the poor, etc., Jesus had answered as well the questions about his identity, his power and his saving purpose.
The two readings of the day have a lot in common. Widow, deceased son, resurrection, and astonishment on divine presence!
Widow means to be helpless. Live without Partner. An important part of their life is no longer there. This makes their life difficult. It is like a bird that must fly with one wing. Europe is better positioned in this case. But in the East it was different. You might have heard about India and ‘Sati’, a custom, a ritual of dying on the pyre of her husband. Biblical world is much better and social in this regard: There are numerous portions in the Bible; those assure care and protection for widows and orphans and warn to avoid taking advantage of their weakness. And some of them are very hard: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. “(Exodus 22:21-24). Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah declares: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.”(Jeremiah 7:5-7)
Elijah the prophet of God is on the way. His Name means “God is Yahweh”! Yahweh means “I am who am”! “To be” is nothing less than life. Yahweh is yes, God of life. Yes, in this case of helplessness, God comes to rescue: as a prophet; in the form of the Son of God.
The Prophet and Jesus are on the way with God’s life.
God wants no one suffers unnecessarily. God wants life! This is clear in both cases.
Life is God’s plan on earth. Remember! The Bible begins with the creation narration! It’s all in his plan.
We see a wonderful meeting in the Gospel! Two crowds of people come together face to face! Jesus with his friends – They symbolize life and joy, the other is a funeral procession with the dead young man and his helpless mother.
The crowd of life and joy meets the train of death. At this meeting life will flourish further. At first, the dead son is alive. The poor mother gets her life of hope back. Then the people are invited, to life, to the surprise.
The resurrection of the dead is a prophetic act of Jesus! We cannot repeat it as such. But ‘dead’ are many in our world!
Death is where relationships break, and where hope dies, where there love lacks. Yes, there are many ‘dead’ around us.
I am sure it is now our task to make this action further. As Christians, we bear Christ, his life and his joy in our lives and in our activities. We often meet people in our life, many who have lost their hope; those who are in need of help. Can I give the divine joy, for others through my presence? Is my life a living testimony of God, his love and mercy? Jesus says, “Get up!” We can extend our hands to provide the help necessary to enable one to get up! Through our physical and social and even financial helps we can be different. Our God is a God of life! We are his children! Let us be the messengers of life! God bless us in life! Amen.
1. By divine power, Elijah restored life to the son while God’s forgiveness restored life to the widowed mother (1 Kings).
2. The call to ministry is not necessarily contingent upon qualifications, background or heredity. Freely given, vocation is a grace that must be nurtured and developed by talent (Galatians).
3. Compassion motivates the disciples of Jesus to restore life to the forgotten lonely and the poor (Luke).
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.