Sermon on 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17 for Pentecost +3C, June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:17-24
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “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!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he 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 and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
We just heard two very similar stories, one from the Hebrew Bible, the other from the Jesus tradition as given uniquely in Luke.
The story is universal: what grief is deeper than the grief of a parent at the loss of a child? Especially the mother who carried the baby in her body, who gave birth, and who nurtured her or him through infancy. Our hearts go out to parents even when their children are dangerously ill and at risk. I do not belong to “the fraternity of parents who have lost children,” as one member of that group describes it, but the thought makes me shudder.
Elijah and the Widow’s Son
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah is called a “man of God.” He speaks for God. He speaks truth to power. He has confronted the king, Ahab, and will confront him again, at the risk of his life.
So, in this scene he has, at God’s instruction, fled the country in self-imposed exile, during a severe famine. He has come to the home of a widow in Zarephath, in the Phoenician area of Sidon. You may recall the story of the miraculous supply of grain and oil that never runs out until the famine ends. This is the following story.
The widow is a type-character in the Hebrew bible. Widows were probably plentiful. Accidents, disease, war, and even crime left women who had lost their husbands in great danger and vulnerability. The term “widow” became shorthand for people in need and at risk. Jesus would call these kinds of people “the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine.”
The God Paradigm
Before Jesus came and taught us to understand God in an entirely new and alternative way, people believed that the good things in life came as rewards for their good behavior, and the bad things in life came as punishments from God for their sins. This is exactly what the widow in this story believes.
“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!”
Even Elijah the prophet attributes the death of this poor child to God as its direct cause:
“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
I think that this kind of belief is probably necessary as a stage of development in our understanding of God. Remember that before this age of Monotheism, most people thought that their lives were plagued by lots of gods and demigods. Every drop of rain, every lamb that was born, every locust swarm threatening your grain , every death in battle was the direct result of pleasing or displeasing one of these divine forces.
So, it is an advance in understanding to eliminate all those demonic causes and think instead of one God as the creator of all and the cause of everything. But thinking that way does leave you with a God who does some pretty cruel things, none the least of which would be causing the death of children. We can feel Elijah’s agony as he accuses God of bringing clearly undeserved “calamity” on the widow.
This God, the cause of everything, is not petty or thin-skinned. God can take an angry accusation without the ego needs of self-justification nor of punishing reaction. God simply answers Elijah’s prayers, and restores the child to life.
Jesus and the Widow’s Son
In a clearly parallel way, Luke tells his story of the widow who lost her son, with clear echoes of the Elijah story ringing in the background. There are also echoes of a well-known story of Apollonius, a Pythagorean philosopher, teacher and reputed wonder-worker of the first century Roman world that Luke was likely familiar with.
Luke actually intensifies our compassion for the grieving widow as they carry the open coffin of her son by letting us know he was her only son. Now this widow is without any protection, without a male bread-winner, truly at the mercy of any opportunist or brute.
Jesus’ response is compassion. He looks and sees it all – not just the grief from the loss, but the whole situation, including the future that awaits “one of the least of these” – a widow with no surviving sons, in a culture and society with no safety nets.
Disregarding the prohibition against touching the dead, or even a grave, Jesus reaches out to touch the bier (Numb. 19). He speaks words of comfort to the widow, saying,
“Do not weep.”
Then he says,
“Young man, I say to you, rise!”
Why Tell These Kinds of Stories?
I do not belong to the fraternity of parents who have lost children, but I cannot imagine how stories of miraculous resuscitations must sound to them – and I know some you are among them. How do these stories strike you?
To draw all the rest of us into this problem, let me ask it this way: why does it help to tell the story of a miracle like this when children die? We can count on one hand the number of children given their lives back in the bible stories, and even less in our own personal experience. So why tell such stories?
God, and the Death of Children
I believe that there are powerful truths being taught here that we all need. First, in the Jesus story, there is no discussion at all of sin, punishment, or retribution. Why did that boy die? No one even hazards a guess. His death was not a punishment, and his resuscitation is not a reward. It just does not work like that.
God does not cause the death of children, or any other calamity. Rather, God is there with us when we go through our lives, with compassion, grieving with us, suffering with us; this is why we tell stories of incarnation in which God walks the earth in human sandals: this is the kind of God we trust in; the kind that knows what death smells like, and who looks with compassion on all who grieve.
Death is part of life. This is also what this story confronts us with. As we put ourselves in the story, in our imaginations, we know that this young man will not live forever. There will be a second procession for him, as there will be for all of us. Life is transient. Life is a gift, but life in this world is not a permanent gift. In this good world created and blessed by God, each of us takes our place for one generation at most.
This is not a morbid thought, but rather, because it is the truth, it sets us free. Facing death, we are free to ask, how should we then live? What will have been our legacy? How doe we want to be remembered?
Open Eyed Compassion
I believe this is why we tell stories like this: our calling is to be followers of Jesus. This is how we are called to live, to be people of compassion, as Jesus was.
That means we have our eyes open to seeing, without turning away, the realities of our world. And seeing, we respond with compassion. We go to where there is grief or sorrow, as Jesus did, with compassion. Compassion for people who are suffering becomes part of our personal lives – we all have people around us who need us to be the hands and feet, the eyes and heart of Jesus for them.
Compassion, as Jesus calls us to practice, is part of our public lives as well. We become people who know how to organize compassion into practical ways to touch people in need. This is what the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home and what Habitat for Humanity is all about: open-eyed, organized compassionate touching of “the least of these,” with love.
The Politics of Compassion
As followers of Jesus, we practice the politics of compassion. We recognize that every budget is a moral document. Every policy has moral implications.
So what does it mean to have open eyes that look with compassion? It means that when we look at issues like immigration, we take a long look. On the surface level, it means that when we think about the desperate plights of unaccompanied children, children in the States without parents, to us, they are “the least of these.”
We do not refer to them as a “burden” as some of our elected officials have recently done here in Alabama. They are children. They are here. As Christians who are called to have compassion on widows who have lost children, we are also called to have compassion on children who have no parents around to care for them.
But that is the surface level. We are called to have eyes that stay open long enough to look more deeply. Why are these children here? What are the conditions back home that would motivate parents to risk sending their children on such a dangerous journey? With eyes open to the horrific levels of violence in Latin America, we begin to understand that simply sending children back may not be an adequate response.
With open eyes we begin to ask questions about how things got this way. We see and acknowledge that the seemingly unquenchable appetite for drugs in this country is the source of the fortunes that drug gangs fight and kill for.
With eyes open we see that peasant poverty that drives people to the drug trade is often the consequence of being forced off ancestral land by unscrupulous developers and international food producers. From bananas to coffee, compassion compels us to ask question about fair trade issues.
Compassion moves us to be on the side of bringing life, instead of deadly poverty, violence and hopelessness. Compassion inspires us to be true followers of Jesus in both our personal and our public lives.
Yes, these are complex questions, and it is truly easy to create unintended consequences by trying to do good. So we have eyes open to this risk as well, praying for guidance and wisdom to find realistic and lasting solutions.
But we never give up. We never disengage. We never simply use the language of being burdened by the suffering of “the least of these” because we have been given a higher calling. We are called to follow the Jesus paradigm of compassion. We trust in the God who does not cause suffering, but who calls us to be the means of God’s compassionate response.