By the Rev. Darren Miner
If you’re very keen-eyed, you may have noticed that our lectionary inserts now say “Track 2,” instead of “Track 1.” The difference between the two tracks is that in Track 2, the Old Testament readings during Ordinary Time are chosen to complement the Gospel reading, while in Track 1, the Old Testament readings have no connection at all with the Gospel reading. Today, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading not only complement each other, they look like carbon copies. Each is the story of the resuscitation of a widow’s only son. But there are differences, and these differences are significant.
In First Kings, Elijah, as you may recall, is a refugee in the town of Zarepath, in the Gentile kingdom of Phoenicia. He is abiding with a widow and her son. When he arrived at their door, he found them starving due to a drought. Having been promised that God would provide, the woman fed Elijah with the last of her food. God rewarded her generosity by providing a miraculous never-ending supply of flour and olive oil. All seemed well. Then disaster strikes. The woman’s only son dies. This would be a tragedy in any culture. But it was even more so in ancient Israel. A widow with no male heir lost all her property to her husband’s family. And unless her deceased husband had a brother who was willing to marry her, she would be homeless and destitute. In a real sense, the death of the woman’s son was her death sentence as well.
The widow of Zarepath accuses Elijah and his God. (Now I say “his God,” because the woman was most probably a Gentile worshiper of Baal.) Elijah is a bit panicked. And he too accuses God of a betrayal. But he conquers his doubt and performs an action that could be considered either a prophetic sign, a medical procedure, or a magical rite. He covers the body of the dead child three times with his own body, all the time praying to God to revive the boy. And God shows mercy and returns the child to life. This is the first resuscitation story.
The second happens some nine hundred years later in the Galilean town of Nain. Jesus encounters a funeral procession. As with Elijah, the deceased is a widow’s only son. Out of sheer compassion Jesus does an unexpected thing. Actually, he does several unexpected things! First, he approaches the woman and speaks to her, saying, “Do not weep.” That alone was unusual. In Jesus’ culture, men did not address women who were not familiar to them. Then he does another strange thing. He touches the stretcher on which the corpse of the widow’s son lay, thereby making himself ritually unclean—again, not something a Jewish man of Jesus’ day would be expected to do. Finally, he does an even stranger and more unexpected thing. He speaks to the corpse. He commands the corpse to get up. And it does! The dead man sits up and speaks. What the resuscitated man says is not recorded—perhaps it was a case of expletives being deleted! As with the Elijah story, both the son and the widow are saved by God’s grace.
The crowd rightly discerns that a great prophet has arisen among them. But Jesus’ demonstration of power shows that he is greater than any prophet who came before. For Jesus could resuscitate the dead with nothing more than the power of his word. Though the story from First Kings and the story from the Gospel of Luke are almost twins, the subtle differences between them serve to differentiate Jesus from the prophets of old, even as it shows his ministry to be in continuity with theirs.
I’d like to turn now to the motivations of Elijah and Jesus. Elijah may very well have felt an obligation to the widow who had befriended him when he was a political refugee. But Jesus had no such obligation. We are told that he acted for one reason and one reason only, compassion for the grieving widow. And it is in this compassion, and in the act of love and mercy that follows from it, that we can most clearly see God in Christ.
Many of you here today have suffered the loss of loved ones. Many of you here today are widows. Perhaps some of you have even lost a child. When we hear these two miraculous stories of the dead being returned to life, we are moved to ask two questions: 1) Did these miracles really happen? And 2) Why didn’t God return my deceased loved one to life? The questions are valid ones. But frankly, I have no interest in trying to answer them, at least not today. Instead, I would rather pose a question that only rarely are we moved to ask when hearing such stories, namely, “What are these stories calling us to do?” Instead of imagining ourselves in the role of the two widows who receive miraculous aid, why not imagine ourselves in the roles of Elijah and Jesus, who channel God’s compassion and grace?
As you know, Mathew and I just returned from one week in Switzerland. While we were there, we had the opportunity to tour the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Whereas the UN facility in New York is focused on politics and security, the facility in Geneva is focused on humanitarian aid. The tour guide took us through the conference rooms of a building that can only be described as a temple to humanity. We noted that each room contained impressive murals on the walls and ceilings. Our guide explained that the murals were intended to remind the UN workers of the peaks and valleys of human history and to inspire them to act with compassion. It’s odd how a song or a picture can reach us in ways that plain words often cannot. At several points in the tour, our guide commented on the current crisis in Syria. She opined that it is the greatest crisis of the 21st century, and yet to be honest, at that point, I felt a bit disconnected from the ongoing tragedy of which she spoke. That feeling of emotional disconnection changed later that same day.
When we got back to our hotel room, we watched BBC News. The leading story was that 1000 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in the previous seven days. A picture of adult bodies strewn on a beach was shown for just a few seconds. This still shot of death was broadcast in a strangely matter-of-fact way, with none of the pathos of last September, when the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy in short pants was found lying dead on a beach in Turkey. The newscaster seemed unfazed by the death of a 1000 nameless refugees. I, on the other hand, was sickened by the sight.
You may well ask, What does this all have to do with the stories of Elijah and Jesus raising the dead? Well, the answer is simple. Just as Elijah and Jesus channeled God’s mercy and grace, so too are we called to be channels of mercy. Just as the Christ interceded for a complete stranger out of sheer compassion, so too are we who are christened called to have compassion for strangers in need. I have said in a previous sermon, that I don’t care if America is great. I say it again. I don’t care if America is great! I do care if America is compassionate! I do care if America is merciful! And I ask you to remember God’s call to compassion the next time you encounter someone in need, and I ask you to remember God’s call to compassion as you mark your ballot at the polling station on Tuesday.
I would never presume to tell you whom to vote for. I value your individual consciences too much. But I do urge you to vote as a Christian. That means voting to help refugees, whether from Syria or from Central America, just as the widow of Zarepath helped a certain Israelite refugee. That means tearing down the walls that separate God’s children, rather than building even more walls. That means making real economic sacrifices for the sake of the poor, the homeless, and the hungry. For the sake of Christ, I would ask you to cast your vote on behalf of those who have no political voice at all.
Now, I’ll make an admission. I often find it difficult to vote against my own self-interest. I especially hate voting to increase my own taxes. I agonize about it. I pray about it. Then I try to do what I think Jesus would want me to do. (And I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes!) That’s all I’m asking of you here today. Pray about your vote. Struggle with the all-too-human tendency toward self-interest. And then vote with all the compassion and mercy you can muster. If you do, you will be following in the footsteps of both the prophet Elijah and the Christ of God.
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.