A Question of Life or Death

It is perhaps because I am a Carmelite, although I think there’s more to it than in just being one of the “sons of the Prophet”! Whatever the reason, the stories of Elijah in the first Book of Kings always leave a deep impact on me. For this tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time the first reading was taken from the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath of Sidon in 1 Kg 17.

The seven verses selected for the liturgy tell us of the widow who reproaches Elijah “the man of God” for bringing death to her house. Imagine this poor pagan woman, widowed, starving to death due to the drought brought by the command of Elijah in the name of God, hosting Elijah and providing him with his daily share of bread and water, who now has to face the threat of the death of her only son. Both herself and Elijah think that it is God who is chastising her for the many past sins she committed. In truth God has nothing to do with neither the drought, nor the death of her child. A close and attentive reading of the cycle of Elijah shows that God never asked of Elijah to close heavens and bring drought in his name, as much as he never asked of Elijah to prepare the triumphal mis en scene for the sacrifice on Mount Carmel.

Nevertheless Elijah is convinced he is acting in God’s name as a legitimate interpreter of the will of the Lord whom he is called to serve. What Elijah does in fact is tantamount to bringing death on a people already led astray from the God of life. Elijah’s activism for the sake of God’s Reign and Sovereignty over his people becomes nothing more than a disservice to God and his cause. The irony is that Elijah in 1Kgs 17: 17-24 points to God as the one who is bringing death to this poor pagan goodhearted widow! Elijah dares to lament and almost reproach God for bringing “calamity even upon the widow” with whom he was sojourning, “by killing her son”! Pathetic!

Through “word”, “breath” and “physical contact” of Elijah (signs and gestures used by God in the act of creation, and by Jesus in acts of healing) the Lord brings back to life the widow’s son. Please note that the pagan widow distinguishes between Elijah as the one who brings death and God as the one who brings life. It is only after her son is restored to life that Elijah is recognised as a true man of God and that the Lord’s word in his mouth is truth.

I find that this story breaks in upon those who are thought of or think of themselves as men or women of God. Their “expertise” and familiarity with the Lord can become a hinderance to the revelation of the true and real God. We are indeed not far from the real danger of presenting a subjective projection of God and his will, and worse than that, to take decisions and to act on one’s own projection of who God is and of what God wants of his people.

How frequently, too much perhaps, in the history of religions, men and women of God transmitted to an already estranged people from God the image of a Lord of death rather than that of the Lord of life. Religious fundamentalism is but one example. The widow’s initial hostility towards the prophet has to challenge us to have the courage to ask whether some of the contemporary hostility towards God and religion are in fact a reaction to religious imprudence and arrogance.

Prudence and humility are needed to protect us from overconfidence and to enable us not to assume too quickly one has sure knowledge of God and of his good will. More often than not overconfidence and being too sure are signs of projected images of God which do not reflect the real thing. Healthy self-doubt can help, especially men and women of God, in being bearers of life and not of death in God’s name because as Jesus points out, God is the God of the living.

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