Saturday Night Theologian
10 June 2007

1 Kings 17:17-24

All of today's readings deal with the threat of death and the joy that life brings in the face of that threat. In the story of Elijah, a great drought was oppressing the land, a drought that paralleled Jezebel's persecution of the prophets of God. The whole land was suffering, but Elijah found refuge with a widow and her son, and the three were living well--well, at least they were living. Suddenly the woman's son fell sick and hovered on the boundary of death. After all that I've done for this man of God, she said to herself, this is how God repays me. She lashes out bitterly at Elijah, who prays fervently to God three times for God to restore the boy's life. Finally God answers Elijah's prayer, and the boy is restored to health. "Now I know," says the widow, "that you are truly a man of God." One interesting aspect of this story is the widow's accusation against Elijah, and Elijah's even more startling accusation against God. The woman assumes that her son is dying because of her own sins, a word that in the context probably means her failure to observe rituals or taboos properly rather than moral failure. Elijah's presence in her house, she assumes, has brought unwanted divine attention to her and her son, and now he is teetering on the edge of death. While the woman's reaction is probably understandable, Elijah's response to the crisis is surprising to the modern reader. We expect Elijah to deny that God has brought about this calamity, to encourage her to have faith, or perhaps to mutter some platitude about the mysterious ways of God. After all, that's what we would do. Instead, Elijah apparently agrees with the woman and points an accusing finger at God. "Have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" That sort of attitude toward God shocks modern sensibilities, especially when uttered by a prophet who, we think, should know better. Was Elijah right about God? Was God really killing her son for some reason? We don't know. What we do know is that God heard the cry of Elijah and brought him back from the brink of death. This story teaches a powerful theological lesson about the relationship between God and people: regardless of the veracity of Elijah's accusations against God, God intervened with the boy on Elijah's behalf. Maybe Elijah was wrong in his understanding of God. From the perspective of modern, Christian theology we would say he was. But then we, too, have at best a poor understanding of God. Our understanding of a situation like Elijah faced may be no better than his. What this passage teaches us, however, is that our understanding of God doesn't matter nearly as much as our faithful commitment to God. Elijah didn't know why, or if, God was killing the boy, just as we don't know why, or if, God is involved in the crises that confront us. What we can learn from Elijah is not his theology but his persistence. Elijah's commitment to God did not waver despite his inability to fathom God's actions. Neither should ours.

Psalm 30

(first published 16 February 2003)

The psalmist rejoices because he has recovered from a serious illness, and in response he offers thanks to God. Thanksgiving psalms like this one contain stereotypical, even generic language, so that they could be used by a variety of worshipers bringing their thanksgiving offerings to the altar. When we are in the depths of despair, the psalmist says, all we can see is darkness, and even God is hidden. But when health is restored and we look back on our troubles, we realize that "weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning." Life has both joys and sorrows, but joy can prevail if we let it. Rather than focus on the negative, like a weary old hypochondriac who seems to get perverse pleasure out of imagining that the worst possible diseases have descended on his body, we can clothe ourselves with joy, if we decide to do so. I've known rich kids so despondent that they took their own lives, and I've seen poor kids in the streets of Africa and Latin America running, laughing, and playing like they had everything in the world. Joy is a choice.

Galatians 1:11-24

Over the past couple of years several books critical of religion have hit the best-sellers list: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great; Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation; among others. One of the primary critiques of religion in many of these books is that religion tends to turn people into fanatics, ready to oppress, imprison, and even kill in the name of God. This critique of religion is not new, and in fact people of faith have lodged similar warnings about religion, such as Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, and Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God. Christians tend to think of the evils wrought by Muslim fanatics, such as those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or the trains in London and Madrid. Jews might think of Palestinian suicide bombers (Muslims) or Nazis (Christians). Muslims in other nations often think of the evils done to them by Christians, not just in the Crusades and in their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, but more recently in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran and the abuses in Iraq during the ongoing war there. The fact is that religion--any religion--sometimes leads people to do terrible things. But that's not the whole story. Christians usually look at Paul's conversion experience, which he references with few details in today's passage in Galatians, as a move from Judaism (his old religion) to Christianity (his new religion). However, his conversion was something more than just changing his beliefs and acknowledging Jesus as messiah. A profound change occurred in his behavior as well. Before, Paul was so fanatical about his religion that he persecuted those who disagreed with it. Now, Paul is promoting his religion by means of persuasion rather than the sword. I'd like to be able to say that it is the nature of Christians, because of their encounter with Christ, to be loving and to eschew violence as a means of communicating their message, but the history of Christianity unfortunately teaches otherwise. Members of religious minorities often decry the harsh treatment they receive, only to mete the same out to members of other religions if they ever attain majority status. What accounts for Paul's change in approach? Maybe his newfound minority religion status forced a pragmatic change, but I suspect it was more than that. Maybe Paul was humbled by the realization that his previous violent actions were an indictment of his own flawed character, not a statement of faith. Maybe his understanding of Jesus' teachings, and the example of Jesus' death, led him to renounce violence as an appropriate evangelistic tool. It does seem odd to say, "I have wonderful news for you; accept it or die!" Yet that's the message that Christianity has too often proclaimed to the world, through its actions if not its words. Rather than accuse Muslims of being terrorists or atheists of misunderstanding Christianity, Christians should commit themselves to having a conversion experience like Paul's, which was not a commitment merely to follow Christ but a commitment to follow the example of Christ in all we do, loving others, doing good, and actively opposing violence, especially if perpetrated by others claiming the name of Christ.

Luke 7:11-17

Today's readings have focused on the boundary between life and death and the threat that death poses to life. The last account, from the Gospel of Luke, preserves a story that is found only here, though it might preserve echoes of other stories, such as the raising of Lazarus. There is certainly an allusion to the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The parallels to the Elijah story are striking. Both involve a widow, her only son, and a prophet of God. In both cases the prophet restores the son to health through the power of God. The differences between the stories, however, are interesting. In Luke's story, the young man is apparently an adult rather than a young boy. This difference may be meant to emphasize the fact that the woman was dependent for her survival on her son, not the other way around as in the Elijah story. Another difference is that the healing involving Jesus takes place in public, where everyone can see it. Whereas Elijah began by acting publicly and was now forced to hide to avoid execution, Jesus began by acting privately, but his fame grew ever greater, and he would eventually face execution himself. The fact that the young man had already died heightens the miraculous nature of the healing, since the son of the widow of Zarephath might possibly have still been alive. Finally, the results of the healing are different. After Elijah raises her son, the widow's faith in God is strengthened. After Jesus raises her son, the faith of both the widow and the townspeople is strengthened. As Luke tells the story, Jesus is a prophet even greater than Elijah, and he is just getting started. For Christians, Jesus was a prophet and even more, but it's important to remember that he was a prophet, speaking the words of God but also doing the work of God. As prophetic Christians, we are called to do the same.