Tuesday, May 31, 2016

PENTECOST III (Proper 5) 2016

Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozzi Bernardo
The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta - Strozza
On this Sunday, unusually, the ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament overlap. The first takes up the story of the prophet Elijah again, while the second picks out one element of that story. As it happens, perhaps not coincidentally, this means the Old Restament reading and the Gospel resonate especially well this Sunday.  The passage from 1Kings and the passage from Luke both recount episodes in which an only son dies and then is restored to his grieving widowed mother. The question, of course, is what we ought to learn from these. 
A striking feature of the two episodes is this. The widows are grief stricken, and yet their first reaction to the miraculous restoration of their sons, is not the straightforward expression of relief and joy that we might expect. On the contrary, the widow of Zarephath’s immediate reaction is to hail Elijah as a bringer of ‘truth’, while Luke tells us, even more strangely, that a ‘great fear seized all the people’ who witnessed the Gospel episode. 
Tissot - Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain
Why these reactions? The answer is this. Though it seems obvious to hail events like these as wonderful miracles, this is not their most important dimension. Rather, they break the regular course of the natural world in order to point to deeper, spiritual dimensions. It is by means of miracles that both Elijah and Jesus momentarily draw back the veil of ordinary experience, and reveal the depths of mystery behind it -- the awesome presence of a transcendent power whose reality we can only glimpse. More importantly in those actions, Elijah and Jesus reveal themselves to be fully at home in that mystery. That is to say, these are men whose lives are oriented to the holiness of God.
This is precisely what the references to 'truth' and 'fear' on the part of the beneficiaries reveals. The modern world’s success with health and healing, makes it is easy to be blind to what less medically sophisticated societies saw. We thereby often miss the true significance of the Bible’s miracle stories. Were we possessed of such powers, it is most likely that we would value them primarily as a wonderful short cut to dealing with illness, a way of dispensing with complicated and expensive medical procedures. For Elijah and Jesus, who did possess them, they are far more than that -- dramatic signs by which people can be brought to God.

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